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Book Review

Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Mara Carlyle is a senior in a small suburban town. One day a classmate spontaneously combusts in her precalculus class. Blood splatters everywhere, and chaos ensues.

In the following days, as school administrators scramble to provide counseling and answers, more seniors explode. News crews, bloggers and doomsday fanatics from across the nation begin lining the streets and requesting interviews. The world watches and speculates via the internet: What were the common denominators between the dead seniors? Were they all using drugs? Were they all gay? As more kids explode, each theory falls apart. Seniors of varying ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations continue to combust every few days.

Mara tries to process these deaths with her best friend, Tess. Unlike Mara, who often partakes of drugs and alcohol, Tess is studious and drug-free. Mara has theories about evolutionary cell mutations she believes may account for the combustions. Government agencies begin arriving to investigate. A hip female FBI agent name Rosetti enlists Mara and Tess to spy for her.

Mara starts getting texts from a classmate named Dylan. He hasn’t witnessed any of the combustions like Mara, and he asks her if it’s invigorating. She knows it’s horrible to feel energized by these killings, but she admits it is. She and Dylan begin dating, even though she’s heard rumors about him burning down a building and fathering the triplets of a former classmate.

As the deaths continue, life in the small town unravels. The high school shuts down. The government quarantines the senior class to test and study them. They release the kids when no visible abnormalities are found. A scientist comes to town spouting theories based on her research about an exploding tribe in New Guinea.

Agent Rosetti’s conspiracy theories become stranger and more paranoid. She tells the girls about implanted tracking devices and cover-ups. She’s eventually taken off the case, but she still hangs around to investigate. Townspeople fear and snub the kids. The seniors’ parents allow them to slip into drug- and alcohol-induced hazes because no one knows how much time they have left.

Mara and other bored seniors lobby to reopen the school so they can graduate. Four adults agree to teach classes like yoga and the Bible. Mara finds the Bible somewhat fascinating. Then the kids discover their teacher, who came to town with a group of religious fanatics, is just sticking around to watch the evil children burn.

With every death, the student body copes by sinking further into hedonism. Kids openly drink, have sex and use drugs. When Dylan explodes, Mara confesses that the sex was never that great and his death made her feel alive. She begins drinking to the point of blacking out nearly every day.

The remaining seniors hold a prom. Adults allow them to be unsupervised and enjoy free-flowing illegal substances. Mara has started believing she brought on the combustion curse by hating the people who died. She grabs the microphone, preparing to confess. Before she can speak, other kids start stepping up to the stage. One boy says his sexual energy caused the combustions. Another girl says she’s been dabbling in Wicca and is sure she has caused the deaths. Whispers throughout the room indicate that each of the remaining kids believed they were somehow responsible.

Mara and Tess talk after the prom. Mara is drunk and falls asleep. When she wakes up, she only sees blood and is pretty sure Tess has combusted. She doesn’t want to believe it, so she and others launch a search. Tess is never found, nor is a viable explanation for any of the combustions. Mara decides all she can do is learn to live with the uncertainty of life for however many days she has left.

Christian Beliefs

Mara says it’s a raw deal that Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sundays and that you can thank Jesus for that. Mrs. Dodd, who came to town with a religious group, teaches the Bible when school reopens. She tells kids the government has abandoned them but the Lord has not. The kids enjoy books like Ecclesiastes and find them timely. They discover there are some inspiring stories amid the boring parts.

Mara likens herself to Noah because she got the school started up again and is helping carry her fellow students to safety. She later realizes Mrs. Dodd sees the kids as sodomites and is just there to make sure every last one of them burns. Mara says she’d like to believe at least some of the Old Testament stories are true because they always feature survivors. She says God is full of wrath, but the human race goes on. One teacher says Descartes believed that if you imagine a perfect God then one must exist.

Other Belief Systems

Billy, a classmate confined to a wheelchair due to a disease, belongs to a Christian Scientist family. His parents won’t vaccinate or give him medications. Tess tells Mara the whole family believes in the healing power of God, and Mara says God is the GD devil if he blew up someone like Billy.

Mara and friends offhandedly make references to Karma, Eastern beliefs and practices, and all the gods of all religions. At least one student practices Wicca.

Authority Roles

Parents, teachers and other adults progressively let the seniors get away with more obscene, dangerous and criminal behavior. They allow these things because no one knows how much longer the traumatized seniors have to live. While a few adults genuinely want to help the kids work through their grief, most of the adult characters are fanatical, self-promoting, fear mongering or lewd.


The Lord’s name is frequently used in vain in various forms, as are words including the f-word, a--, s---, crap, b--ch, h---, d--k, p---, b--tard, pr--k, douche, tits and boobs.

Students flip each other off. Mara says her mother uses a lot of profanity, and the text confirms this. Numerous scenes depict teens blowing up and leaving splatters of blood all around them. The president of the United States curses profusely when she witnesses spontaneous combustion from the Oval Office video feed. Fearful neighbors shoot one senior.


Dylan is rumored to have fathered triplets with a former classmate. Mara says Dylan must have powerful sperm to produce triplets. She learns Dylan’s brother is actually the triplets’ father. Dylan is a virgin until he has sex with Mara. After that, they are frequently sexually active.

One sex scene is particularly graphic. Mara is on the pill but urges Dylan to use a condom as well. Mara has had sex with three boys before Dylan. Many other instances of their petting, making out, nudity, etc., are mentioned. Dylan initially sneaks into Mara’s house to sleep over. Eventually, she just tells her parents he’s going to stay overnight.

After a girl named Cranberry explodes, her boyfriend writes a graphic letter about their lovemaking and posts it online. Mara mentions a male classmate who took advantage of a number of girls while they were drunk or high. She also talks about a place called the crack tree house where kids would go to do drugs and play make-out games.

Several of the exploding students and at least one teacher are gay. People use the word fag to describe homosexual kids. After a girl explodes, one of Mara’s female classmates confesses she kissed that girl. When Mara asks if she’s gay, she says she doesn’t know what she is, and the dead girl didn’t either. At one point, the media speculates a new gay plague may be to blame for the combustions. Discussions of condoms, STDs, porn sites, hard-ons, masturbation, sexting, feeling horny, orgasms, oral sex, experimental homosexuality and other sexual and homosexual references are common.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol/Drugs/Smoking: Mara and most of the classmates she mentions do drugs and drink alcohol regularly, so the story contains many references to being drunk or high. The Dalton twins, part of Mara’s senior class, deal a variety of drugs until they explode. Mara gets a sample of all of their drugs for the FBI when people suspect narcotics are the catalyst for the spontaneous combustions. A local dentist is arrested for supplying the drugs to the kids. Mara and Tess decide they will be old ladies who sit on the beach and smoke hookah pipes together. Mara smokes a hookah pipe alone after Tess has gone missing.

Voyeurism: Bloggers, reporters and religious fanatics come to town to experience the frenzy after kids start exploding. The whole world watches and comments via the internet.

Criminal behavior: Dylan tells Mara he was being watched by the FBI after posting a vulgar online death threat online. He was also with some classmates when they used a Molotov cocktail to burn down a building. Students start vandalizing and looting to blow off steam after a boy named Billy explodes. When reports of their vandalism go viral, kids around the country begin looting and destroying and say they’re doing it to honor Billy.

Prejudice: When people begin to speculate homosexuality is making kids explode, homophobic religious fanatics come to town and hold cruel signs.

Suicide: Tess told Billy that if he ever wanted to go to Oregon, where assisted suicide was legal, she would drive him. She said he deserves a dignified death.

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Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

14 and up


Aaron Starmer






Record Label



Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC


On Video

Year Published





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