Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Rant and Review: Undeadly by Michele Vail

Review: Undeadly by Michele Vail
Rating: A rant is forthcoming.

"The day I turned 16, my boyfriend-to-be died. I brought him back to life. Then things got a little weird..."

Molly Bartolucci wants to blend in, date hottie Rick and keep her zombie-raising abilities on the down-low. Then the god Anubis chooses her to become a reaper—and she accidentally undoes the work of another reaper, Rath. Within days, she's shipped off to the Nekyia Academy, an elite boarding school that trains the best necromancers in the world. And her personal reaping tutor? Rath.

Life at Nekyia has its plusses. Molly has her own personal ghoul, for one. Rick follows her there out of the blue, for another...except, there's something a little off about him. When students at the academy start to die and Rath disappears, Molly starts to wonder if anything is as it seems. Only one thing is certain—-Molly's got an undeadly knack for finding trouble...

WARNING: I am mean. I am so mean. I am unfairly, ridiculously, crazily mean. There be snarkiness ahead, sailors. If you loved this book, or if you are opposed to negativity in the blogosphere (which is a valid opposition to have), you may want to step away. You have been warned.

Oh, Undeadly. You are a book with so much promise. I love that synopsis. I loved the mythology. I loved so many aspects of the plot. I’ve never read a YA book that focused on the Egyptian gods and their underworld. Unfortunately, Undeadly is not the book it appears to be.

There's a lot to like here, and a lot that bugged me. Truthfully, not a lot happens. Most of the plot is Molly drooling over her almost-boyfriend, reacting to mean girls, and inexplicably getting hit on by a hot, mysterious dude named Rath, about whom we receive nearly no information. None of the secondary characters are developed at all. In the world Vail has created, necromancers are common. It’s an alternate contemporary where zombies and those that raise the dead are a part of our history and our present. I straight up loved some of the aspects of Molly's everyday necromancer life while working at Al’s Zomporium and attending the Nekyia Academy. I found the idea of a necromancer boarding school completely fascinating. I adored every aspect of the mythology. And every now and then, Molly is legitimately funny.

“Not feeding a zombie is not like not feeding your cat. He. Will. Eat. You. And your cat.”

This indicated to me that Vail can seriously write. I think she's probably super talented. The world she’s invented is both hilarious and creative. There is so much potential in the reaper mythology, and sometimes her descriptions are perfect. But the narrator’s voice, to quote Molly herself, “made me want to yark.”

It is teen speak at its very worst: “kinda” “sorta” “um” “gotta” “It was a mondo ick mess”. All on the first page. I’m not saying teenagers don’t use those words. They do. I do (except for “mondo ick mess”, because this is not the twentieth century and my name is not Spicoli). Dropping them in your writing every now and then is realistic. A well-placed “um” is a thing of beauty. But these were all on one page, and not even in dialogue, but in Molly’s diary. She writes this way, like a twelve-year-old trying to sound cool. And even though her diary pages are very short and only show up every now and then, her first person narration is no better.

More examples:
“It ka-illlled me, but I smiled.”
"They were engrossed in a conversation that had something to do with Taylor Lautner."
“Gah! Who thought of that ridiculousness? Soooo unbelievable.”
"This was a whole 'nother level of WTH."
"Because hel-freaking-lo, I was going to boarding school."
“He imprisoned the gods in the bowels (Seriously? Ew!) of the Underworld.”

YOU IDIOT GIRL YOU ARE NOT LITERALLY DISCUSSING BOWELS THESE ONES ARE FIGURATIVE THERE IS NO PEE INVOLVED YOU KNOW HOW THIS WORKS. And stop saying BTW and TYVM in your own narration. You're not actually texting, so how hard is it to mentally say the words "by the way" and "thank you very much"? Especially since it took me a solid twenty seconds to figure out what TYVM even stood for because I am decrepit.

I’m sorry to turn this particular book into a scapegoat. I’ve run into a couple novels lately that have had this problem, but Undeadly, unfortunately, was the one that put me over the edge. It had its very real merits, but the irritating writing overshadowed them. I’m not trying to sound like a stuffy old fogey. I don’t require books to have impeccable grammar and advanced vocabulary. Those are not the only signs of intelligence. There are some amazing books written in colloquial form. If you follow my blog (or are reading this post), you know I don’t usually talk like a college professor.  I like slang, and funniness, and informality, but only when it’s natural. And my problem with Molly Bartolucci’s slangy teenage talk is not only that it sounds forced, but that it’s insulting. It’s insulting to the reader and it’s insulting to teenagers.

Molly sounds like an SNL parody of a teenager. She sounds like your Great Uncle Mort making fun of you after you accidentally say “totes” or something at the dinner table. Molly is Drunk Uncle.
Sometimes, when writing YA novels, adult authors try so hard for their characters to sound young that they end up writing a parody of the teenage voice: dumb, shallow, and text speak-y.  And it's outdated text speak, too. They’re trying to make it sound like Clueless, even though Clueless came out eighteen years ago. One of the stereotypical mean girls in Undeadly literally says, "We're outtie" as she and her friends exit a party. And besides, Cher and her friends are not as dumb as people think they are.

Murray: Woman, lend me five dollars.
Dionne: Murray, I have asked you repeatedly not to call me "woman"!
Murray: Excuse me, Miss Dionne.
Dionne: Thank you.
Murray: OK, but street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily misogynistic, undertones.
Tai: Wow. You guys talk like grown-ups.
Cher: Oh, well, this is a really good school.

Clueless (1995)
Teenagers are smart. They are. They have worthy brains that are capable of doing this thing we call "thinking". When I was a teenager, four whole long years ago, nobody I knew talked like Molly. I know a lot of teenagers today, some of whom run very successful and intellectual book blogs, and they don't talk like that. Most of young adult literature is about teenagers thinking or learning to think about grownup issues of the world with their sometimes childlike brains. This doesn't mean they act like ten-year-olds all the time. When people assume teenagers are stupid-- despite the fact that most of the best writing out there is both written for and from the point of view of teenagers-- I get angry. Very, very angry.
Teenagers can see through condescension and insincerity in a second. They know what rings false. They know how to form complete sentences and complete words. Okay, perhaps not all of them. Spend enough time on Twitter and you’ll realize that there are a great many people whose syntax can make the English language cry. But these are not the kinds of people I generally want narrating my books, since books are literature and I expect some degree of coherency of thought. And yes, I know teenagers are not always very mature. I'm a twenty-one-year-old (with a brain that is permanently seventeen) and I make horrendous decisions. But I keep running into characters, like Molly, that are just stupid for stupid's sake. They act immaturely and shallowly and without logic because authors think that's a realistic way for teenagers to act. On the one hand, I love when characters make mistakes. All humans do that. All humans are dense or stupid or immature sometimes. But I just can't sympathize with a narrator who trusts absolutely everyone, even the obviously evil people, and who is Too Stupid To Live.
She thinks her English teacher would be proud of her using the word "fragrant", like she just casually dropped “antidisestablishmentarianism” or “houppelande”. She is disappointed when her boyfriend gives her a book without pictures or writing (otherwise known as a journal, Molly). Reading this kind of character makes me feel like the author thinks all teenage girls are too stupid to live. That they're spazzy, swoony ditzes who constantly roll their eyes at their "'rents" and whine "whatevs" and are incapable of realizing their own mistakes (not that there's anything wrong with saying "'rents" or "whatevs" or rolling your eyes. That doesn't make you automatically stupid). Molly refuses to even contemplate the very OBVIOUS way in which she's screwed up, nor does she ever think about the SERIOUS, FATAL, TRAGIC consequences she incurs. When the reader is light-years ahead of the narrator, intellect-wise, you wonder why you're even following along with her, or why you should care.


Another book that I read recently that had this same problem was Radiate by Marley Gibson, a book about a teenage girl battling cancer. I loved that Hayley, the main character, was an upbeat cheerleader. It made a nice change from the average angsty and sarcastic narrator. But she and all her friends talked just like Molly, except maybe even worse. Every teen in the book texted in this kind of incomprehensible, all caps code that physically assaulted my eyes. It hurt to look at it.


This is not to say that adult authors can't write convincing teenage voices. Obviously they can, and do so every single day. But when it doesn't work, it really doesn't work. Radiate had some of the same problems that Undeadly had and some real strengths. But in both books, I couldn't get past the insincerity of the writing. It was more like how adults think teenagers talk than how they actually do.

The beginning of Undeadly is cluttered with clunky exposition, which, while interesting, is very inelegantly presented.  Basically Molly yatters for a while about all the mythology (“It was a mondo ick mess. Finally, Anubis went deep into the Underworld and got some badass magic. We’re talking magic so ancient and powerful, it wasn’t supposed to leave the world of the gods, like, ever.”), then goes “Aaaaanyway” and takes us back to the plot.

When Molly gives exposition to you, the reader, she sounds like a very lame high school teacher trying to be "hip with it". You know those teachers. They're the ones who make up raps and insultingly try to put things into simple terms they think you’ll understand. (“Let’s say Katie’s texting her friends at the mall, and she wants to buy four super cute pairs of shoes, but she only has, like, fifteen dollars, and her BFF is totally wiggin'…”) Like the teacher thinks you're too stupid to grasp the basic concept without them butchering a metaphor about some clich√© aspect of teenage life.

And because Molly isn’t very intelligent, the book doesn’t feel intelligent. The reader isn't trusted to make any leaps of judgment, because Molly never does. It takes Molly one hundred and fifty pages to figure things out that the reader comprehended in seconds. Molly has small moments of true feeling and insight, moments where I let tiny little bubbles of hope swell in my chest that maybe Molly would finally grow. And then the very next sentence is literally "Whatevs", effectively popping my little hope bubble. This book seriously lacked depth.

I think the key to accurately writing a teenage voice is to not try to replicate a teenage voice. If the author lets their character be-- lets her suffer through those ordeals that are so unique to teenagedom-- then she'll sound authentic without you trying so hard. I sound horribly crotchety, I know. It's the New Year and vacation and I should be doing something relaxing like napping, not trashing books on the internet. And I honestly don't mean to trash anyone's work, or trash Vail as a writer, but when I read something that bothers me, I feel compelled to comment on it.

Generally, I like slang. But you need to know how to use it. You can't overdo it, you have to use it correctly, and you have to employ it in the right circumstances. If your main character is in a scary situation where someone is pointing a gun at her and all she says "Hoo-kay", then the reader really isn't going to feel much fear. There is SO MUCH POTENTIAL  in Undeadly that reading it kind of broke my heart. A boarding school for necromancers! Undead boyfriend! Hot, hot Rath! Destiny! Anubis! But the main character just killed every good thing in this book, and sadly, she was unable to resurrect it (everybody applaud my brilliant wordplay).

So there's my super long rant. Am I raving, as usual? Is my snark out of control? Is my soul blackened with hate and I need an exorcism to get all this negativity out of me? Or is this a pet peeve of yours too? If you did read Undeadly and thought Molly's voice was fine, I'd love to hear from you too. Did you have other problems with the book, or did you like it? Which books have you read that totally fail at capturing the teenage voice?


  1. *applauds* Hurrah! When I saw your tweets that went back and forth with my sister, I couldn't wait to see the rants. I personally love rants and feel empowered when I read them. I want to stand up and face the injustices of the world just because I read something like this.

    When authors distort teens like this and make them ill-educated, annoying, obnoxious creatures that roam the earth, I want to slam my head into my keyboard. Multiple times. And while some teens might text in a way that makes me have to decipher it for a full 10 minutes, I haven't come across one myself.

    This book does seem to have SO MUCH potential. I love mythology and Egypt and everything that comes with it. So it really makes my heart break to know that Vail got trapped into it and couldn't make Molly better.

    But once again, I cheer for you and this post!

    1. Aww, thank you! I tend to write rants just because I'm a ranty person, not to feel empowered, but I like to hear that I'm not turning people off with my grumpiness, because I can't really help it. When you push one of my buttons, well... I rant. And this was one of my buttons.

      I think what made me so annoyed was BECAUSE this book had so much potential, and I could see how talented the author was, and how good the story could be. But every time she made Molly say "Hoo-kay" I just died a little inside.

  2. (You're perfect. Don't ever stop.)

    So the problem with people ranting about books on the internet is it always makes me want to read the book MORE. (I think I might be a masochist. It is a problem) Or rather, I want to bully my roommate into doing a dramatic reading of this- that faux-teen speak sounds hilariously terrible, and would only be improved by his equally ridiculous Vegeta impression.

    Also! I also don't like when books mention celebrities or stuff like that (one of the quotes you pulled mentioned Taylor Lautner). I mean, if they're huge celebrities or a major current event, that's one thing, but most of them are relatively minor 'fad' celebrities (I just finished a book that name-dropped Vanessa Hudgens), and it really dates the work. Stuff like that will not be remotely relevant in two year's time :/

    1. I have that masochistic tendency too. AND I LOVE DRAMATIC READINGS. Your roommate sounds awesome. And yeah! I agree with the celebrity-mentions. Unless they are icons who won't go out of style and won't ever sound dated, they're to be avoided. You don't want someone in 2013 to read your book and go, "Wow, that is so 2011"... especially since that's problem when you wrote it.

  3. I didn't think you were mean at all. I thought it was a thoughtful and HILARIOUS review. You have also saved me time in reading this book. I would dislike the same things you did. You have such a way with words! ;-)

    1. Thanks :) *squishes you in a hug both uncomfortably long and tight*

  4. Ugh. I put down the last book I read that sounded like this. The one that really gets my goat every time is teen-book-narrators who don't get really simple concepts, or at least, don't see impending doom when it's coming from a million miles away. I just finished A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY and I was like, the hell, Gemma? I saw that ending coming about half the book ago. Everyone has been acting really suspiciously for about 50 pages now.

    I might be on board with Kirsten and read this just for amusement.

    1. Clearly, I have found my optimal readers, if you and Kirsten are both MORE inclined to read Undeadly after reading my review :). I understand you people.

      And UGH to teen narrators who can't see the obvious coming when you can. Molly is definitely one of those. There's this one small (read: MASSIVE) issue with her boyfriend, and she almost gets it about every twenty pages. "Something was wrong, maybe even really wrong... BUT PROBABLY NOT he's so cute and I'm happy! Noooo worrieeeees." I just wanted to shake her and be like, "YOU IDIOT."

  5. Ew. I'm so glad I never picked up this book. I don't like to hang out with people who even pretend to talk like that in real life, so there's no way I'd spend time in a fictional world with them.

    Also, rant or not, this was a hilarious post. Good job.

    1. Thanks. And I am pretty sure this book would not appeal to you. Molly and Shelver... they would not mix.

    2. Someone would die (without being brought back to life), and it would not be me.

  6. When I first heard about this book I was so excited to read it. I loved the concept of the book and thought that this would be a great read. I have read a couple other reviews of this book on some of my favourite blogs and I have come to the conclusion that I will not read this novel. After a few reviews I was on the fence about reading it, but yours sealed the deal. I cannot stand when people talk like that, and I would probably rip my hair out if I had to read a book where the narrator did. I love when reviewers rant about books and I thought your post was just fantastic.

    1. I was excited to read it too! It sounds so good. And it seriously could have been, but, alas, it wasn't. And thank you! I'm glad you liked me rant! I confess I do love to rant. I can't tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing about me.

  7. Apparently Michele Vail is a pseudonym for Michele Bardsley, who usually writes adult fiction and erotica. I'm guessing the awkward teen speak is some sort of overcompensation for the shift in genres?

    1. I had heard it was a pseudonym. That sounds very plausible to me. Sometimes people who are used to adult fiction get thrown when they switch to YA, thinking they need to drastically change their voice, when really all they have to change are their themes and plots. Set it in high school, make it about growing up, use whichever voice you want, and it will work (maybe).


    You review reminded me so much of my coblogger! She absolutely HATES the House of Night series, and ranted a lot, and used GIFs too in review. So yeah, I enjoyed reading this a LOT. :) Though it's kinda sad- I actually wanted to read Undeadly because the cover was pretty and the summary sounded so cool. But ugh, from the way the characters talk, I think I might rip the book apart.

    ...Kidding! (Mostly ;) )

    But you know what? You just made me want to read this book all the more, review it for myself, and see if I'll rant as bad. ;)

    And did I mention I love the GIFs in your review? And I love your blog? And I love the way you talk/think/speak/write that I think I'll keep on coming back? :)

    1. *scuttles over to check out your blog IMMEDIATELY*

      I've heard the same thing about the House of Night series! I've never read them, because I know I'll dislike them, but maybe I'll pick them up if I ever feel the need to rant again (I feel this need a lot). And the cover is gorgeous, right? You may actually like it. After all, my rant-y opinions are mine and mine alone, and there is a lot going for this book. It just didn't work for me.

      Clearly, we will be friends, though, if my nasty mean sarcasm-fest induces you to PICK UP the book, because that's exactly how I feel whenever I read a bad review.


  9. Wonderful post! Those GIFs . . . hilarious! I'm addicted to GIFs.

  10. I was considering reading this book, but since you say it's not that good, I'll pass. Thanks for the info!

    1. You're very welcome. Usually I encourage people to take my opinions with a grain of salt and try the book themselves, but not in this case, sadly.

  11. Wow! What a rant! I loved it! I am so incredibly disappointed by all of the crappy reviews for this book. It makes me sick because I was so excited about this one. I think I will read it anyway, but at least I know not to have high hopes. Maybe it will make it not so bad? Yeah, that is a question mark. And a big old fat maybe

  12. I appreciate an honest review! :D I haven't read this one, was just intrigued by the synopsis. I haven't come across any that don't do a good job at capturing the teenage least none come to mind. Thanks for your review!

  13. Nothing wrong with an honest review. I was looking for a review of this book because a friend recommended it, but now not so much. LOL! I might check it out to roll my eyes, etc. We shall see. I do find some authors use text speak in adult fiction. I read a mystery as an ARC and it featured 30-40 something year olds talking in text. I threw the book against the wall a few times.

  14. I didn't think this was a mean review at actually said a lot of nice things about the book! I haven't read this one but it sounds like the same problem I had with The Seven Rays by Jessica Bendinger, who is, probably not coincidentally, more of a teen movie screenwriter than a novelist.


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