Friday, June 17, 2011

Bloodthirsty (Off-Topic Review)

Series: Stand-Alone
Genre: Comedy
Author: Flynn Meaney
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company

Bloodthirsty is a zeroth novel that has seen print. To elaborate: there's the first novel, which is released and -- with luck -- sets the stage for a prosperous writing career to follow. And then there is the zeroth novel, which is written before the first novel, but fails to find an agent or a publisher. For good reason. Most authors have a zeroth novel, which embodies everything they don't yet know how to do right. I do, and most of my writing friends do as well. If it's not a novel, it's a collection of unfinished stories and juvenalia, which likewise demonstrates severe deficiencies in craftsmanship. Ask my parents, who had three kids, of which I am the oldest: the first one is where you make all your mistakes.

This isn't a bad thing. Writing, like any creative endeavor, is one that has to be developed. Early on, you make mistakes. And you have to make those mistakes to realize your weaknesses and improve or compensate for them in the future. But in can be embarrassing to have them in print, because for all the care and enthusiasm you put into it, the zeroth novel is inevitably you at your clumsiest and most ignorant.

You think I'm going to bash Bloodthirsty now, don't you? Think again.

Our hero was cursed from birth with the name "Finbar Frame". As you might guess from that, he's the school loser: too insecure to go to parties, too scared to stand up to the bullies, and simultaneously too shy and too eager with the girls. His afternoons are spent reading voraciously at home, his weekends watching vapid chick-flicks with his overprotective mother. But, having just moved from Indiana to the heart of New York City, he's up for a fresh start. So is his body, which has decided to develop a crippling allergy to sunlight. Finbar's already pale and thin, and now it's hooded sweatshirts or hives all year long. So he's on course with continuing to be the school loser after all, but fate intervenes when he overhears a trio of random teenage girls gushing over the latest Hot New Thing: A tawdry vampire bodice-ripper called Bloodthirsty. In a flash of intuition, Finbar realizes that between his pale skin, thin build, and bad reaction to the sun, he could pass for an actual vampire. So with a new persona -- dark, brooding, mysterious, and ambiguously undead -- Finbar sets out into the dark and dangerous realm of high school, armed with vampire attitude and on a mission to get laid and get respect.

I'm not even going to try and dignify the plot. Hell, from that description, you've probably guessed the whole thing yourself: Finbar constructs a new vampire persona in a scheme to be more popular. After some initial stumbles, it pays off, and he winds up with two love interests: one who believes he's a vampire, and one who's oblivious to it but likes him just for being Finbar. Life is good and funny stuff happens, but before long things go too far, the plan backfires, he winds up trapped in a lie, etc. etc.. In the end he realizes that the whole vampire attitude was just Dumbo's Magic Feather, and all he really needed was the confidence to Be Himself. (I'll leave whether or not he gets the girl as an exercise for the audience.) We know this story. We've read it a hundred times. It's old hat. But here's the thing: Bloodthirsty is a comedy, and comedy has an unbeatable trump card: no matter how many mistakes you make, if the story is funny enough, all that and more is forgiven. Bloodthirsty makes many mistakes, but it's also the funniest book I've read since The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

As both narrator and protagonist, Finbar is a note-perfect representation of an insecure teenage boy. He's hormonal, timid, and feels that everyone is cooler than him. It's obvious through the first quarter or so of the novel that things are nowhere near as bad as he seems to think, and his only real problem is that he's scared to death of being judged by his peers. He also has a tendency to ramble, which is good and bad. On the one hand, his soliloquies are often comic gold. The bizarre logical tangent his brain goes off on when his kinda-girlfriend asks to introduce him to her family must be read to be believed. One the other hand, you start hoping, especially during the early chapters, that he'll just get on with it already. He starts off the book telling us that he's going to tell us how he made up his mind to became a fake vampire, and three and a half chapters of backstory later he gets to the point.

There are other problems as well, more serious ones. The story has an extremely cobbled-together feel sometimes. Repeatedly, we will have jump cuts from one chapter to another, which gets disorienting after a while. There's a storyline about a bully and his victim that exists purely so that Finbar can beat the bully up. Afterwards, both characters vanish from the book. Storylines about Finbar doing physical training with his brother and getting recruited for winter track are started and then barely mentioned again. And while there's plenty of humor, a lot of it is disposable throwaway gags that simply do their job and then get out of the way. Worse, we have occasional spates of bad writing. The convention chapter was a golden opportunity for both humor and character development, but it falls flat on it's face due to the frankly ridiculous sequence of events that takes place.

But the biggest issue with the book is the main love interest, Kate. She is, to be perfectly honest, a Mary Sue. She's exactly perfect for Finbar: she gets his jokes, shares his interests from the moment they meet, is beautiful yet nerdy enough to match him, has no compunctions making out in the hallway, and is unfailingly loyal. A love interest so perfect smacks of either lazy writing or wish-fulfillment fantasies. Red Moon Rising had the same problem, but it was forgivable because the romantic subplot was almost irrelevant to the main story. By contrast, Finbar's quest for a girlfriend is integral to Bloodthirsty, so the implausibility is damaging.

Enough. I said the humor forgives everything, and I mean it. It's a quantity over quality deal: You endure the problems because it makes you laugh out loud roughly twice a page. That's a very good laughs over time ratio. Oddly, Bloodthirsty remains entertaining even after it stops being funny. It's a weird metamorphosis, and I'm not quite sure what to make of it. Since the core of the humor is Finbar's self-deprecation and "woe is me" shtick, the shift to a more serious narrative may represent Finbar's improving confidence. Alternatively, it may be the author's skill improving as she goes. Whatever the reason, near the middle Bloodthirsty drops the laugh-a-minute attitude and adopts a new tone: lightly humorous and surreal, akin to The Adventures of Pete and Pete. We get scenes like a school principle who's completely out of it, or a bully whose interactions with his prey take on a weird homoerotic air. By the end, the book resolves itself into a serious exploration of teen identity crises. And yes, drifting away from the humor that redeemed the book's flaws does result in a less likeable story. But here's the thing: we've all felt like Finbar at some point or another. We can identify with wanting to be someone different, cooler. And because his characterization is dead-on, we identify with him strongly enough to keep cheering for him. Even when his situation stops tickling us. Even when he does some really dumb and/or insensitive things.

But now I'm rambling. Bottom line: if you have any interest in YA fiction or vampire "stuff", read Bloodthirsty. It's fun, and humorous, and is rooted in genuine teen experience. But! Ms. Meaney would be well advised not to rest on her laurels. This is very much a zeroth novel, with the best and the worst of the author on display. And I know if my zeroth novel had gotten published, I wouldn't have learned the lessons that I needed from its failure. With Bloodthirsty the good outweighs the bad, but it won't always, and Meaney has to work to perfect her craft and her style. To lose such a potential talent due to a failure to grow artistically would be a tragedy.


  1. Nice review. Sounds like a book to read when you want to laugh. Thanks.

  2. Is this one of the ARCs you got from BEA, or did you just stumble on it in the library and decide to give it a try? Either way, it sounds like a lot of fun :D Might have to look around for this one.

  3. Neither, actually. I read the blurb on it when it first showed up on the 'net a few months ago. Obviously, it was off-topic, but I read the blurb and thought "heh, that sounds funny." Fast forward a few months, and I've collected a few books like that, so I decide to start doing one off-topic a month, to keep myself centered. Getting too wrapped up in werewolves could leave me with a kind of tunnel vision.

    I'm probably going to do Unwind in a few weeks, but for the moment it's back to howling. Some excellent books in the subgenre coming out over the summer.

  4. Now this is a vampire book I can get into. :) Even if it does have its flaws and mistakes, from what you've said, it sounds like a good and funny book. It's nice to see you break out of the lupine pattern (though I do adore the weres more than the vamps) and allow for different material to be covered on the blog. Personally, I'd like to see you review Martinez's Chasing the Moon.

  5. That does sound funny. But... "Vom"? as in "chunks"? Strange name for a guy who's thing is eating...

  6. Maybe he likes to eat food in chunks? Who knows, but it's close to the top of my TBR list so we'll have to see.


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