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Monday, October 25, 2010


Plot Type: Paranormal Chick Lit (CH)

Titles:  Here is a complete list of the short stories, novellas, and novels in MaryJanice Davidson's QUEEN BETSY (UNDEAD) series in reading order:
     Undead And Unwed (novel 1, 2002)
     "Dead Girls Don’t Dance" in Cravings anthology (2004)
     Undead And Unemployed (novel 2, 2004)
     "Biting in Plain Sight" in Bite anthology (2004)
     Undead and Unappreciated novel 3, (2005)
     Undead and Unreturnable (novel 4, 2005)
     Dead and Loving It (4 novellas bring together the Wyndham Werewolves and Queen Betsy, 2006) 
     Undead And Unpopular (novel 5, 2006)
     Undead and Uneasy (novel 6, 2007)
     "Undead and Wed: A Honeymoon Story" in Dead Over Heels (2008)
     Undead and Unworthy (novel 7, 2008)
     Undead and Unwelcome novel 8, (2009)
     Undead and Unfinished (novel 9, 2010)
     Undead and Undermined (novel 10, 2011) 
     Undead and Unstable (novel 11, 6/2012)
     Wolf at the Door (a WYNDAM WEREWOLVES novel with a BETSY connection, 10/11)
     Undead and Unsure (novel 12, 8/2013)
     "Undead and Underwater" (novella in anthology of same name, 2013)
     Undead and Unwary (novel 13, 10/2014)
     Undead and Unforgiven (novel 14, 10/2015)

This post was revised and updated on 11/19/2015 to include a review of Undead and Unforgiven, the 14th novel in this series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of novels 9 through 13. 

               NOVEL 14: Undead and Unforgiven               
     If Betsy Taylor has learned anything about ruling Hell it’s: 1) She can't do it alone, and 2) She doesn’t have to. She’s got the help of a devoted vampire king, a dateless zombie, an exhausted new mom, an unshowered cop, a bitchy ghost, a kindly dead priest, and her late stepmother (“Go Team Satan 2.0!”). But the latest major hurdle in her afterlife is so big she can’t even see it until it’s on YouTube.

     Betsy’s father and half sister Laura (a former Antichrist with a grudge) have teamed up, for what sinister purpose Betsy can't imagine. The former Antichrist didn't take kindly to getting what she wished for, and has decided that's entirely the fault of the vampire queen. What that means for Betsy is trouble (more than usual, even) and possible exposure to an unsuspecting world.

     Meanwhile Hell is having a deleterious effect on Betsy's friends ("I didn't think it was possible, but the damned are getting meaner."), the newly dead are confused about Hell's new rules ("A buddy system? Really?"), and the vampire king is trying to poach on Betsy's territory. Betsy loves her husband, but that's not the same as trusting him. Before long the king and queen of the vampires aren't speaking to each other, the mansion on Summit Avenue is a war zone, and Betsy's getting calls from a werewolf, a mermaid, and worst of all, her mother ("What do you mean you can't babysit?"). No one said life after death would be easy, but c'mon: this is ridiculous. 

     In this penultimate novel, Betsy takes charge of Hell, supported by a committee comprising her dreadful stepmother, the Ant; her depressed zombie friend, Marc; her husband's sire, Tina; a former ghost named Cathie; and Father Markus, a Catholic priest whose previous congregation consisted of teenage vampire decapitators. Hell à la Betsy looks exactly like the Mall of America, with no lakes of fire and no stench of sulphur and brimstone. In the first ten chapters of the book, Betsy and her committee revise the Ten Commandments (to be known in the future as The Ten Commandments Remix) and begin to revise the rules and regulations that determine the seriousness of punishments and the length of sinners' stints in Hell. During these early chapters, Betsy spends her time meeting and greeting Hell-dwellers (including George Washington's mother), going to one committee meeting after another, hanging out at Hell's Orange Julius stand, and teleporting home for quality bedroom time with Sinclair. 

     Beginning with chapter 11, the action really gets going. You will recall that Betsy and her half-sister, Laura, (aka the Antichrist, the Spawn of Satan) are in the middle of a major family feud. In the previous book (a month ago), Laura did some sneaky, underhanded deeds in order to force Betsy to help her out with her Hellish duties. In response, Betsy kicked her sister out of Hell and removed all of Laura's magical powers. Now, Laura wants revenge. She has always been a spoiled, needy brat, and her plans for Betsy and the vampires include outing them to the general population. Laura's Plan also includes converting the world to Christianity.
Note: When Laura explains her Big Plan to Betsy, it sounds an awful lot like the plan that Ohio Governor (and 2016 Republican presidential candidate) John Kasich just proposed—that the U.S. government should convince the people of China, Iran, Russia, and the Middle East to convert to a Judeo-Christian belief system, never mind that most of these people already have their own religious beliefs and are quite content with them. Congratulations MaryJanice Davidson! You foretold the future.
     Betwixt and between the events that I mentioned in the previous two paragraphs, Betsy also deals with her best friend Jessica's weird babies (because they keep changing their ages), Marc's deepening depression (because he can't find a boyfriend), Sinclair's hurt feelings (because Betsy won't allow him to come to Hell with her), and her inability to keep track of time in Hell (because it runs differently than on Earth). 

     The first ten chapters were tough for me to get through. As usual, there are many—too many—scenes involving Betsy's frenetic rants on whatever catches her attention. These are always the weakest scenes, and they have grown to be more and more annoying as the series has lengthened. It's actually a relief when Laura shows up in the plot because she gives Betsy a focus—something to take her mind off smoothies and shoes and general silliness. (Athough even the second part of the book veers off on some wacky tangents, like the very short chapter 22, which consists of nothing more than a list of "Terrible Nicknames for Hell's New Boss Lady.") Near the end of the book, Davidson inserts a major plot twist that I didn't see coming. Although it works, it's hard to imagine how Betsy had time to pull it off given the demands of her smoothie-drinking, committee-meeting, sex-enjoying, friend-cajoling life. I did enjoy this book more than the past few, and I'm looking forward to reading Betsy's final book next year. 

     One last thing: Davidson frequently refers to past events in Betsy's vampire life, and she footnotes each reference with the title of the book in which it appears. I had a mixed reaction to those footnotes. On the one hand, they might be helpful to readers who want to go back and read about those events. But on the other hand, they have a commercial tone to them. 

     To read or listen to an excerpt from Undead and Unforgiven, click HERE to go to the book's page, where you should then click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

     Elizabeth "Betsy" Taylor is a former model turned vampire, whose special non-vampiric characteristics (e.g., not sun sensitive, not allergic to human food, not repulsed by religious objects) make her the prophesied queen of the vampires. Her love interest is her tall, dark, and handsome vampire king, Eric Sinclair.

     Supporting characters include Betsy's wealthy African American BFF, Jessica; her gay doctor friend, Marc; her half sister, Laura (the devil's daughter); police detective and former flame, Nick; and Eric's sire and assistant, Tina. Together, they solve various supernatural mysteries while causing many of their own problems through carelessness and lack of foresight. The series follows Betsy as she familiarizes herself with vampire life, comes to grips with her queenly role, and establishes a romantic relationship with Eric. All the while, Betsy continues to build her collection of designer clothes and, especially, shoes. The tone of the series is generally humorous, but the vampire battles are quite violent, with frequent beheadings and dismemberments.

     The first six books take Betsy from initial vampirehood to marriage. In "A Note to the Reader" at the beginning of Undead & Unworthy, Davidson says that this book and the next two should be considered "a trilogy within a series," with their own story arc that includes the evolving relationship between Betsy and Laura.

     Check out the answers to FAQs at MJ's Facebook page.

               INTRODUCTION TO NOVELS 9, 10, AND 11                 
     Novels 9, 10, and 11 form a trilogy within the series in which Betsy travels backward and forward in time, causes lots of trouble by changing history and events, and then returns to the present where she is forced to deal with the consequences of her well-meaning, but reckless, actions. For those who need a refresher course on Betsy's life, Davidson includes introductory sections in each book that summarize the major action in the series so far. 

             NOVEL 9:  Undead And Unfinished             
    This book takes a much darker turn than the preceding books. One reader compares it to Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol because Betsy is forced by supernatural events to examine her own life and her relationships with her closest friends, particularly Eric Sinclair. 

     The basic plot involves some time traveling as Betsy and Laura go back in time to alter events in both Eric's and Tina's lives. Then they take a trip to the future, where Betsy learns that she's not as nice a person as she'd always hoped to be. As Betsy and Laura visit past events, Betsy thoughtlessly makes some changes that will come back to haunt her.

              NOVEL 10:  Undead And Undermined               
     As book two in the trilogy opens, Betsy is back from her time travels. In fact, she wakes up on a morgue table in Chicago just moments before a buzz saw hits her brain. When she eventually gets home safely (brain secure, if not totally in gear), Betsy learns the consequences of her irresponsible behavior while she and Laura were tripping through the ether on their time-traveling journey in the previous book. Betsy discovers to her horror that her own memories of past events don't match what everyone else remembers—all because Betsy couldn't help herself from making a few alterations while she was visiting the past. Betsy spends much of this book trying to get her memories to sync up with the new reality.

     Davidson reveals her reason for Betsy's reality shift on a page of quotations at the beginning of this book. She includes the definition for retroactive continuity (aka retcon), a literary device in which the author alters previously established facts in a fictional work. Authors use retcons when they want to move a story (or series) in a direction that would not be possible if earlier history remained unchanged. Here's an example of a change that shows up early in the story: Nick does not hate Betsy for biting him, because on this new time line, she never bit him. Now, he is a friend, which he never could have been in the earlier time line. The whole book is like that, with some events and characters undergoing big changes and other events and characters essentially remaining the same. In addition to working on her memory problems, Betsy is obsessed with the fear that she will become the horrible person that she saw in the future, so she needs to figure out how to prevent that. The book includes one more trip to hell for Betsy and Laura, where Betsy learns that Satan doesn't want her dead and that Laura doesn't always tell the truth.

     For me, this book was not as successful as the previous one. The sarcastic one-liners and the frenetic stream-of-consciousness quips overpowered what was already a thin plot line. All of the action takes place in the few hours after Betsy returns from her undead Chicago experience. We do have some characters who return from the dead and one who, tragically, leaves this mortal life, but in the end, Betsy is still just muddling on—as usual.

               NOVEL 11:  Undead And Unstable               
     This is the final book in the time travel trilogy. As the story opens, Betsy is still reeling with grief over Marc's suicide and worrying about the fact that evil future Betsy will use Sinclair's skin to make the Book of the Dead. Once again, the story plays out over an extremely short time span that is filled mostly with Betsy's inane, repetitive, and endless stream-of-consciousness patter that emphasizes her narcissistic approach to life. For example, she never once sees or thinks about her friend Jessica without letting loose a barrage of disparaging remarks about Jessica's fat, pregnant belly. That gets old in the early chapters and excruciating by the end of the book.

     The plot follows Betsy as she dithers through a few days of her life (as usual). People keep telling her that she has to accept her responsibilities as vampire queen and do something to stop the world from ending in the manner that she and Laura witnessed during their time travel to the future. Satan and Ancient (future) Betsy keep dropping in and hinting that it's way past time for present-day Betsy to do something about all of this, and Betsy keeps dragging her feet, babbling about shoes and dogs and smoothiesanything to keep from facing reality. Honestly, if I had a 30-something friend who behaved like this, I'd drag her to therapy and/or slip her some lithium. 

     The dialogues between Betsy and her friends (Jessica, Nick/Dick, Marc [oh, yes, he's back—but in an undead form], Antonia, and Garrett) go on for pages and pages, frequently without identification markers, so I frequently had to stop and reread in order to figure out who said what (although it didn't really matter much in the long run). Sinclair's character has regressed to a cardboard pretty boy wandering in and out of scenes murmuring sweet nothings to Betsy ("my own") or to a disembodied voice in Betsy's head giving her wise counsel that she totally ignores. After a climactic scene in Hell, Betsy solves her most difficult future-related problems, but she alienates Laura in the process. 

     I used to laugh out loud as I read the earlier books in this series, but I didn't laugh once during this book. I'm disappointed in the book as a whole, and the best I can say is that at least it does resolve all of the conflict that originated back in book 9. 

               NOVEL 12: Undead and Unsure               

     Two basic plot lines run through the book, and both reach back to the changes Betsy made in the time line when she and Laura went back to the past during novels 9-11. Although Betsy knows about some of the changes she wrought, she learns about some new ones in this book.

     Much of the plot concerns Betsy's best friend, Jessica, who is hugely pregnant. The problem is that no one seems to know or care exactly when the baby (or babies) will be born. In fact, Jessica hasn't even been to a doctor. No one at the mansion knows Jessica's due date. Sometimes they think it well be in the spring, sometimes they say it's next week, sometimes they just shrug and admit that they just don't know—and why worry about it. My advice to the reader is not to be too concerned about this strange pregnancy situation because when you finally discover why Jessica's extended family is behaving this way, you'll find that the explanation is somewhat murky and improbable and that it is glossed over very quickly.

     Betsy's primary adventure in this book involves her sister, Laura (aka the Antichrist). In the last book, Betsy killed Satan, who was Laura's real mother. (Satan was possessing Laura's biological mother when Laura was conceived and birthed.) During the adventures that climaxed the previous book, Satan attacked Betsy, and Betsy cut off her head. Now Laura is all sulky and snappy, blaming Betsy for Mom's death and disregarding the fact that Betsy was forced to kill Satan to save her own life. As usual, Laura behaves like a spoiled, self-centered adolescent, but the kick here is that she has the power of Hell at her disposal, so nobody wants to make her mad.

     In her own self-centered manner, Betsy stumbles through the story trying to make up with Laura by sending balloon bouquets and singing telegrams to win her over and then inviting her for a late Thanksgiving dinner (in December) so that they can talk things over. That dinner doesn't end well for Betsy, but it does force her to come to some conclusions about how to use her newest powers to mend her relationship with Laura.

     In the meantime, Sinclair is enjoying his new ability to walk in the sun by spending his time endlessly walking the sets with his puppies. In one early scene, he actually takes over the kitchen to bake Apple Crunch Pupcakes for them. Betsy thinks that he is going overboard with the puppies and his outdoor activities, but by the end of the story, she learns that Sinclair has included some sleuthing in his recreational activities.

     The Epilogue scene between Sinclair and Laura was the first time that I really engaged with the story. If Davidson would just let Betsy grow up a bit—just a few tablespoons of maturity, please—that final scene could be developed into an outstanding novel that approaches urban fantasy. But, unfortunately, Betsy hasn't changed at all during this series, and her thoughtless actions, constant snarkiness, and frenzied stream-of-consciousness conversations with herself are just as immature and annoying in novel 12 as they were in novel 1. By now, they're not funny at all. If the next novel deals with the ramifications of the epilogue scene, we're in for a great Betsy adventure. Let's hope for the best.

              NOVEL 13: Undead and Unwary               
     Much of this novel suffers from the constant off-the-wall riffs of random thoughts that appear to be a sign of Betsy's attention deficit problem. She cannot hold a conversation without spiraling off into totally unconnected monologues. It's the same thing that happens when a dog sees a squirrel. All thoughts of what he was doing disappear from his doggy mind, and all he can focus on is that little furry animal. That's Betsy in a nutshell. If you removed all of her pointless, ditzy monologues and off-the-subject dialogues from this novel, you'd be left with a short story.

     O.K., with that out of the way, I'll move on to the story line, which actually has three branches: 1. Jess's twins keep disappearing; 2. Laura (the Antichrist) wants Betsy to keep her promise to help out in reorganizing Hell; and 3. Jessica claims to have seen Betsy's father in St. Paul—her supposedly dead father. The twins' story is played primarily for laughs, but the Hell story is much more serious (although it has more than its share of Davidson's trademark sarcastic humor). The story line involving Betsy's father smolders in the background (as Betsy refuses to discuss it) and then flares up and burns out quickly near the end of the book.

     Betsy has been deliberately avoiding her Hellish responsibilities, just as she dodges other unpalatable responsibilities in her life. Although Betsy agreed to be the co-ruler of Hell, she keeps putting the chaotic events of her own life before her promise to her sister. Now, Laura is calling her on it, claiming that people are escaping from Hell and that Betsy has to help her fix the situation. In the process of reorganizing Hell, Betsy FINALLY shows some signs of maturity—for the very first time in the entire series.

     Betsy spends the entire book moving back and forth between Hell and her weird and wild household. Several ongoing issues are resolved, including the whole situation with Nick/Dick's name and Betsy's rocky relationships with family members. If you haven't read the previous books in the series, you may find yourself a bit lost because there are many, many allusions and flashbacks to characters and events in previous books, with each one referenced in footnotes.

     The final chapters are much better paced than the early ones, mostly because Betsy begins to pull herself together and doesn't let herself get as distracted. This is part of her maturation process: focusing on the task at hand instead of using the defense mechanism of constantly changing the subject to avoid unpleasant topics and tasks. By the end, I was really enjoying the story, especially the well-earned and highly satisfying comeuppances doled out to some deserving characters.

     As the book draws to an end, Betsy realizes that she has learned a few valuable life lessons, and I don't think that giving you this quotation will be a spoiler: First, she says, "Okay, I've learned two things this week Be careful what you wish for, and also, I can't do this by myself." Later in this scene, she also realizes that her friends know her better than she knows herself, and she expresses her appreciation to them for standing up to her and for her throughout her chaotic adventures. That would include all of the quirky eccentrics who make up her household as well as a few characters you wouldn't expect to see on such a list. As issues are resolved, Betsy's family relationships undergo tremendous changes, but none that are set in stone—not yet anyway. To read an excerpt from Undead and Unwary, click HERE to go to the book's page, where you should then click on the cover art at top left.

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