YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: High
I know you love my rantiest letters, so I’m addressing this one to you. (Consider that your warning.)
Eighth Grade Bites was the quick, fluffy read I’d expected. It was also ridiculously nonsensical—ridiculous to the point that I kept dropping the book to go rant at Husband about this makes absolutely no sense and why on earth is this even happening aaaaugh.
That said, I kind of enjoyed it. Weirdly enough.
If you thought eighth grade was tough, try it with fangs and a fear of garlic.
Junior high school really sucks for thirteen-year-old Vladimir Tod, and not in the good slurp-up-the-blood kind of way. A gang of bullies harasses him daily, the principal is dogging his every move, and the girl he really likes prefers his best friend. Oh, and Vlad has to hide the fact that he’s a vampire.
When the one teacher he really connects with mysteriously vanishes, Vlad is determined to find him. But then Vlad finds an unsettling note scribbled across his essay: “I know your secret.”
Vlad must locate his missing teacher, dodge the principal, resist the bullies’ tempting invitations to Bite me!, and get a date for the dance—all before he is exposed for the teen vampire he is.
You’ll need more context than that to understand the rant I’m about to launch into, so let me give you a more in-depth explanation of the plot.
Spoilery Summary of Spoilers
The book opens with a nice gentleman being slaughtered-by-vampire in the woods for not revealing the whereabouts of one Vladimir Tod. There’s your missing teacher for you. He’s then replaced by this guy:
Mr. Otis rewrites the course curriculum to focus on supernatural beasties. Students have to draw a creature’s name out of a hat, and present a report on it:
Vlad’s pretty naturally relieved when his slip of paper reads werewolf, but Mr. Otis has different ideas:
Mr. Otis smugly informs Vlad he looks forward to Vlad’s report on being a vampire, and then proceeds to be super creepy and obviously a vampire for the next, I don’t know, hundred years until Vlad finally realizes, “Hey, dude’s a vampire.”
Meanwhile, Vlad finds some nifty vampire things in his attic, and also snoops around the dead teacher’s house for clues that might help him find the teacher. Instead of clues, Vlad finds Mr. Otis’s obnoxious top hat hanging up inside the dead teacher’s house. Uh oh.
Mr. Otis immediately jumps to the top of Vlad’s (otherwise empty) list of suspects who could’ve had a hand in the teacher’s disappearance.
Vlad later finds his dad’s journal, which provides insight into the secret vampiric society called Elysia. Vlad’s dad, Tomas, had fled Elysia when he fell in love with a human. Human/vampire relationships are verboten, but Tomas couldn’t give up his lady-love and their unborn son. So they fled—to a town about half an hour away from Elysia’s council’s headquarters, because I don’t even know.
(Okay. It’s cause that’s Vlad’s mom’s home town. But come on. Half an hour away from the council’s headquarters? The council that’d kill them all if it found them?)
Vlad was born half-vampire and half-human, and Tomas wrote in his journal that Vlad fulfills some prophecy. But don’t worry, it’s a good prophecy:
Back to the present. Mr. Otis continues to be suspicious, and apparently is consorting with an even-more-suspicious guy named D’Ablo, who’s after Tomas’s journal. Vlad (finally) realizes Mr. Otis is a vampire, and decides Mr. Otis killed his parents.
But no! Mr. Otis is Vlad’s uncle, come to warn Vlad and his family that Elysia was hunting them down with fangs a-gleaming.
Despite Mr. Otis’s best attempts, D’Ablo (the Elysian council president) kidnaps Vlad’s adopted aunt Nelly in an attempt to lure Vlad into the council’s grabby hands. Vlad, Mr. Otis, and Vlad’s friend Henry go to the council headquarters—where, for a few minutes, it looks like Mr. Otis is a bad guy after all—they free Aunt Nelly, and (thanks to Vlad’s nifty but weird vampire doodad, which he found in his attic) kill D’Ablo.
The story’s told in the third-person, following Vlad (usually)—but the narrative voice is so strongly Vlad that it feels like it was in the first-person. (I just had to double-check that it wasn’t first-person. Nope. It’s third-person.) Vlad’s voice is engaging and entertaining, a great combination of thirteen-year-old-male-mindset and adult-writer-knack-for-description. Such as here, when Vlad (who’s the opposite of popular) goes to a classmate’s Halloween party but ends up hiding out on the porch:
Vlad’s voice is simple, humorous, vivid, and emotional in just the right way. I’m a fan.
It’s a fluffy book, sure, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of conflict. It’s just, uh, not the conflict that the synopsis would leave you to believe.
According to the synopsis, this book’s about Vlad searching for a missing teacher, trying to keeping his secret a secret, dealing with bullies and his school’s principal, and attempting to woo a girl. Those are neat conflicts, but not actually significant to the plot. Well, the missing teacher is; not the rest.
This book actually focuses on the mysteries of Vlad’s vampireness and his family history.
We see not too much of Vlad’s crush Meredith, and almost nothing of Principal What’s-His-Face. The bullies actually serve Vlad’s character arc, but only appear a few times throughout the book. These are conflicts that give depth to Vlad’s personal life, rather than providing actual meat to the story.
Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by all the (non-quotidian) mysteries and conflicts Vlad was faced with, and glad that not all of them were solved or resolved in the end.
Unfortunately, this is also where the criticism starts.
Mr. Otis’s Actions
Mr. Otis and his purple top hat are presented to Vlad (and the reader) with an ominous flourish; “Clearly,” the book tells us, “this is going to be a bad dude.” And indeed, he continues to be menacing and creepy and top-hatted until the big reveal of his unclehood to Vlad’s nephewness. When he tells Vlad and Aunt Nelly who he is, Aunt Nelly demands to know why Mr. Otis did all those creepy-menacing-vampire things that scared them so much. His reply:
Later, when asked specifically why he hadn't told Vlad who he was from the get-go, he elaborates:
Yeah. This centuries-old vampire couldn’t think of a better way to broach the subject of vampires with his (vampire) brother’s son than to assign the kid a report on vampires for his English class. Nor could this centuries-old vampire come up with a better way to get the kid to sit down and talk with him than by scaring the crap out of the boy and his aunt.
He then adds:
So his reason for not telling Vlad he’s a vampire is “That’s forbidden,” but in the next breath he says, “Oh, but yeah, I told your aunt even though that’s forbidden and I could be punished for it, but whatev, don’t care.” Sorry dude, but if your reason for not doing something is because it’s forbidden, and then you go and do that forbidden thing later on and don’t bat an eyelash at the whole forbidden part, I as the reader will be tossing you and the book you’re in straight across the room because that makes no sense.
I don’t know how to transcribe the sound of frustration that I’m currently making.
Why’s this frustrating? Because the author is prioritizing a plot twist (“Mr. Otis is Vlad’s uncle, and actually a good guy!”) over sense (“Mr. Otis, being the intelligent, centuries-old vampire that he is, would probably just approach Vlad and say, ‘Hey, I knew your father. Can we talk sometime?'”) The author wanted to generate conflict and intrigue, and chose to make Mr. Otis behave in unrealistically dumb ways to get that conflict and intrigue.
And no, this isn’t the only example of characters doing something uncharacteristic for the sake of the plot. It’s just the one that offended me the most.
The Vampire Tattoos
Now, I don’t have a problem with vampire tattoos as a concept. What I have a problem with is Vlad specifically getting a vampire tattoo.
In this world, a newly-made vampire receives a magical tattoo on their wrist. That tattoo is their name written in the vampire language, and it creates a magical bond between the person and the vampire society (Elysia) as a whole.
Tomas, Vlad’s father, had decided to burn the mark off of his own wrist after he fled Elysia and Vlad was born:
Vlad reads this in Tomas’s journal, so his first exposure to the concepts of both Elysia and the tattoo are along the lines of Elysia is hunting my family down to kill us, and the tattoo is a way for them to find us. His subsequent experiences with Elysia totally prove that thesis correct: Mr. Otis is creepy and menacing, D’Ablo (president of the Elysian council) is actively trying to destroy his family, the Elysian council is comprised of a bunch of cruel bastards who’d sooner see Vlad’s family dead than look at them twice. And so on.
But then, in the last pages of the book, Vlad asks Mr. Otis to stick around and help guide him, and Mr. Otis says he can’t. Vlad gets understandably sad about this, and Mr. Otis tries to comfort him:
Vlad asks Mr. Otis to give him a tattoo, and Mr. Otis agrees.
That’s right, Vlad. Go ahead and brand yourself with a magical tattoo that’ll magically connect you with all those vampires who want to kill you and your family—the same tattoo that your dad risked his life to get rid of in an attempt to save you all from slaughter. Good job. Well done.
Ashers, I am so sad right now.
The Little Things
The aggravating, nonsensical things aren’t just limited to the characters’ actions. No, you’ll also find aggravating, nonsensical things in the overall story development and world-building. Such as this gem, which I enjoyed so much that I made Husband read it aloud to me, so I could cry-laugh while listening to him experience it for the first time:
Oh my goodness, Ashers, I can’t. I just can’t. Vampires invented Latin. Vampires invented cities.
Hold on, trying to catch my breath.
In sum, yes, the number one problem I had with this novel is its overdose of nonsense. It was everywhere: in the characters, in the plot, in the world. It was staggeringly nonsensical in a way that had me wavering between hilarity and indignation. Which was, to be honest, weirdly enjoyable.
So maybe you would enjoy spending a couple hours reading this book. It’s very short (under 200 pages), and it’s on my bookshelf if you ever want it. Just let me know.