Tag Archive for Excerpt from Better Off Undead

Excerpt: BETTER OFF UNDEAD, Chapter 21, “Talal Clues Me In”

I met a middle-school librarian recently who loved this 2017 “cli-fi” book — she thought it was my best book — and it prompted me to take another look at it.

And guess what? She’s right!

Ha, ho, heh.

Though this book received excellent reviews (and a star from Booklist), the sales never quite got there. A disappointment. And somehow, sadly, no matter how I initially felt about the book, it slowly became tinged in my mind with that stigma. A disappointment. Not good enough. 

So it was wonderful to fall in love with it all over again. Or to at least nod and think, Hey, not bad. To know that it’s good, and funny, and mysterious, and smart. 

Here’s an excerpt from the middle of the book, a point when the plot begins to thicken nicely. Adrian is a 7th-grade zombie; Talal is a classmate and a detective; Gia is a new girl with purple hair who seems to be able to see into the future. And that’s where this book is set, btw, the “not-so-distant” future. A book that references pandemics and face masks and super flus and water wars and climate change and a pair of evil corporate billionaires not too unlike the Koch brothers. 

Here, take a swig . . . 



Talal Clues Me In

I was still asleep when Dane knocked on my bedroom door. 

Key word: was.

Past tense.

“Go away,” I grumbled.

“Your friend is here,” Dane called through the door. 

I looked at my clock. It was 8:15 on a Saturday. I sat up, holding my head in my hands. It felt heavy, like a large pumpkin. “Who is it?”

Dane poked his nose into the room. “I don’t know. I never saw him before. He’s wearing a raincoat. And, um, he’s carrying two umbrellas.”

Umbrellas? The sun’s hazy glare streamed through my window. The sky was crisp blue, like an ironed shirt. For a moment, my mind still sputtering, I thought it could have been Zander. Then I remembered the coat. “His name is Talal,” I told Dane. “Tell him I’ll be right down.”

“In your boxers?” Dane asked.

“Just go,” I said.

When I arrived downstairs, I found Dane sprawled on the floor, working on an “Endangered Species” puzzle. Pieces were scattered everywhere. I asked, “Where is he?”

Dane pointed to the side door. 

“You didn’t invite him in?” 

“He wanted to wait outside,” Dane replied.

I went to the sink to swallow down a large glass of water. Still working on hydration, you know. Out the kitchen window I spied Talal standing near our big, sad rhododendron, its leaves turned yellow and brown. Although it was a picture-perfect morning, Talal held a large, black umbrella over his head. “I won’t be long,” I told Dane.

“Can I come?” he asked.

“Sorry, bud. Next time.”

Outside, I squinted in the sunlight. I said. “You woke me up, Tal. Come on inside while I make a shake.”

“I’d rather not do that,” Talal said. “The walls have ears and eyes. Here,” he opened an umbrella and handed it to me, “hold this.”


“I’m serious,” Talal said.

I studied his face. He wasn’t joking. 

“Let’s walk,” he said. ““It’s about that drone. Leave your phone.”

“My phone? I need it,” I said.

Talal shook his head. “No phone.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. I placed my cell on the patio table.

Talal walked toward the back gate. I caught up with him. Both of us an absurd sight, carrying open umbrellas on a sunny day.

“Do you know they can activate all the cameras that are inside our computers?” Talal asked. “You have a smart kitchen, right? Everything’s run by computers. We don’t have to remember to turn off the lights anymore. Cars drive themselves. Our machines automatically order kitty litter when we run low. Think about your phone. That spectacular piece of technology can record every word you say. It can locate exactly where you are. It knows what you ate for dinner and how many hours you sleep. Don’t you understand? They see what you see.”

“Whoa, ease up,” I said. “Who are they?” 

We walked along the street, close to the curb, not on the sidewalk. The roads were quiet. We had the sleepy town to ourselves. 

Talal stopped. He pulled out a tiny computer chip sealed in a plastic bag. “I took that drone apart piece by piece,” he said. “I talked to some people, geeks I trust who specialize in this kind of thing. We know who is spying on you.”

I didn’t know what to say. It was all kind of unreal. 

“There’s a tiny logo printed on this chip, invisible to the human eye,” Talal said. “But when put under a microscope magnified by the order of ten thousand, it’s as clear as day.”

He pulled a folded paper from his pocket. It was a print-out of an enlarged image. The K & K logo. 

“So,” I said.

“So?” Talal echoed. “This proves that the Bork brothers are interested in you. They own the richest, most powerful corporation on the planet. They practically run the country. Those guys live in a compound only forty-five miles away, up beyond a crest in the Catskills.”

“Oh, right,” I said, remembering. “I think I heard about them, maybe.”

“They don’t like the spotlight,” Talal explained. “They operate in the shadows. But they are very powerful –- real financial wizards, and ridiculously rich. They are the ones who sent the drone.” He glanced around, eyes scanning restlessly. “They are probably trying to listen to this conversation right now.”

“That’s why you brought the umbrellas,” I said. 

“Lip readers,” Talal said. “Their staff could videotape us without sound, then figure it out later. These guys will do anything to get the information they want.”

“What information?” I protested. “I mean, even if what you say is true –- that those Bork brothers are following me for some reason –- I don’t know anything! I’m just a kid. An average, run of the mill –-“

“—- zombie,” Talal interrupted. “Nothing average about you.”

I felt like he punched me in the gut.

“Sorry, but that’s the deal,” Talal said. “As far as I know, you might be the only person who has died, and yet still lives. That makes you different. And maybe it makes you interesting.”

We turned down a block, then another. “Can we sit?” I suggested. “My ankle.”

“Sure,” Talal said. He led us to a stone bench in the back of a nearby churchyard. He pulled a sheaf of papers out of his deep coat pocket. “I put this packet together last night. Sorry it’s sloppy. I didn’t have much time.”

The pages were neatly folded and stapled along the left edge. There was nothing haphazard about the way Talal worked. The top page featured a black-and-white photograph of infant twins, swaddled under blankets, in a hospital setting. The twins are turned toward each other as if whispering a secret. 


I flipped the page. 

The next photo was of the twins again. But this time they were aged men, heads close together, unsmiling, staring directly out at the camera. Once again, a large blanket covered their bodies from their necks down. At their knees, four identical legs poked out, wearing matching black socks and leather shoes.

“They look . . .”

Talal turned to me. “They look . . . what?” 

“I don’t know. Just weird, I guess.”

Talal nodded, not saying anything.

I flipped through the rest of the pages. They were filled with numbers, charts, and newspaper clippings. 

“What do we do now?” I asked. 

“Nothing, yet,” Talal said. “At least nothing right now. Let me see what I can dig up on these guys. In the meantime, get used to sometimes going without a cell phone. Let’s not make it any easier for their people to spy on you.”

We headed back to my house. I had to check on Dane, he’d be worried. Talal stopped two blocks away. “We’ll part here,” he said. “I have a family thing.”

“Sure,” I said. “And, um . . . thanks, Tal.”

Maybe he saw something in my face. He said, “Hey, Adrian. It’ll be okay.”

“Sure, sure,” I repeated. And after a pause, I said, “You know, sometimes I have this crazy thought, but I’ve never told anyone.”

Talal just watched me, unmoving, waiting. 

I gestured to the trees and houses. “I sometimes wonder if all of this is just a giant sim game run by a computer program for the amusement of super-beings. Do you ever think that?”

Talal actually laughed. “All the time,” he replied with a grin.

I limped home, my stomach oddly rumbling. Looking up, I noticed a wake of red-headed turkey vultures, at least twenty of them circling in a vortex high above me, holding steady without flapping their wings. I’d never seen that many at once before. They spiraled hypnotically round and round, riding pockets of warm air. Maybe they saw me with their keen eyes and sense of smell. Perhaps they were as puzzled by it all as I was. 

I didn’t have an answer for them. 

“Sorry, birds,” I murmured. “I haven’t got a clue.”

Dane was taking a bath when I got home. My mother was on the computer. I snapped on the television. A commercial came on. I’d probably seen it a hundred times before, but this time I noticed the names at the end of it.

The commercial flashed a series of short film clips, each more beautiful than the next. A fishing boat leaves a harbor, a man in a business suit gets into a cab, a rugged farmer drives a big-wheeled tractor, a cowboy saddles up, a car and moving van pull into huge home, a tear-stained grandmother watches a wedding scene in church, various citizens hoist American flags up flagpoles, rows of smiling children look up in wonder, a proud eagle soars across the sky. Final image: Logo on the side of a huge, glass-sided building for K & K Brothers Corp.

While all those images floated past, a man’s voice spoke in soothing tones. The words, as he spoke them, scrolled across the screen in block letters. They read:









In smaller print, it read: “This has been a paid advertisement by K & K Brothers Corp.”

“That’s some frown, Adrian,” my mother said. She had joined me in the kitchen and was poking around in the refrigerator. “What’s bothering you?”

“Huh? What?” I replied. “No, nothing, I’m fine. I was watching that commercial and –-“

“Don’t you love it?” my mother said, while slicing into a giant-sized, perfectly pink, wonderfully round, genetically-engineered grapefruit. “I see that commercial every day, and every day it makes me smile.”

I made an effort to smile right along with her.

“Be happy. Relax. Smile,” my mother repeated. “Those are words to live by!”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I wondered why K & K Corporation was spending millions of dollars on commercials to brainwash us all.

They didn’t want us to worry. 

Because of course they didn’t.

Everything was fine.

Be happy. Relax. Smile.

I went up to room and sprawled across the bed. I felt a strong urge to find Gia. She had an eerie knack of knowing what was about to happen. It was time we had a talk. My cell dinged. It was a message waiting from Gia: 

7:30 tonight. Lookout Hill. Go to the bench that faces the tracks. We need to talk.

Once again, she was two moves ahead of me.




“The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc . . . . In a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending.” — Booklist, Starred Review

“This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message. A strong addition to school and public library collections.” — School Library Journal.

Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale of a middle-schooler who craves normalcy, and environmental issues with some currency make the story even more relatable. Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers, and they’ll be glad of the hint at a follow-up.Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books.

“Preller takes the physical and emotional awkwardness of middle school to grisly levels . . . [and] thoughtfully chronicles the anxieties of middle school, using a blend of comedy and horror, to send a message of empowerment and acceptance.” — Publishers Weekly.

The Legend of Talal Mirwani: How I Spoofed Jack Reacher in BETTER OFF UNDEAD

The character Jack Reacher has been having a moment on Amazon Prime. Good for the Big Lug! Until recently, he’s been best known as the main character in Lee Child’s popular book series (and the unfortunate Tom Cruise movie). Reacher is a lone wolf, a drifter, and a former military investigator who always manages to find trouble. Or, as the cliche goes, is it Trouble that finds him?! The books are action-packed and wildly entertaining. You don’t read so much as devour them.

However, I grew tired of Reacher after 3-4 titles. He was too perfect for my taste. Confession: As the author of 42 Jigsaw Jones mysteries for young readers (ages 6-9), I have a semi-professional interest in literary detectives. One of the amusing things that Reacher does — amusing to me, serious to him — is he’s a deft profiler. You might be familiar with this sort of fuzzy technique popularized in various crime dramas, where a detective makes intuitive inferences about a criminal’s personality. In other words, after examining a crime scene, the brainy detective will announce, “We’re looking for white male in his 40s. He has mother issues and probably drives a Prius. He buys his clothes on sale at JC Penney. Favors white shirts and narrow yellow ties. He has a taste for 80s Britrock — some of the lesser-known cuts from The Smiths’ “Meat is Murder” album — and still slices the crust off his grilled cheese sandwiches . . .”

And on and on and on it goes.

This mode of detective work has roots in Sherlock Holmes. “How did you know that?” Dr. Watson asks. “Elementary,” Holmes explains. The Power of Deductive Reasoning.

Jack Reacher performs this magic act time and again in the novels and, now, in the (pretty fabulous, if I must say) television show. There’s a scene, early on, when he offhandedly does it to Police Chief Oscar Finlay and stops Finlay cold with its uncanny accuracy.

How does Reacher know? It’s elementary!

Unfortunately, what makes good television does not always make for solid investigative practices. The work of profilers has been largely debunked these days, a strategy that’s mired in fallacy and too often morphs into half-dressed guesswork. At best, a profiler like Reacher can examine the nature of the crime — using objective observation — and use inferences to provide a broad indication of a type of individual who might likely have committed the crime. At worst, it can lead the investigation wildly astray. The proverbial wild goose chase. In the annals of FBI investigations, there are a few startling successes — but they are far outnumbered by the total misses.

I spoofed this a few years back in my 2017 middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead. As a contemporary example of “climate fiction,” the novel — set in the not-so-distant-future — touches on pandemics and face masks, a super flu, colony collapse disorder, white nose syndrome, data farming, and more. My idea: stick my characters in a world gone wrong.

LET ME SET THE SCENE: our hero Adrian Lazarus is sitting in a middle school cafeteria with his best friend, Zander Donnelly. Adrian has problems, he’s a misfit, an outcast, and, not coincidentally, a reanimated corpse, i.e., zombie. That’s when, in chapter 21, our detective enters the scene and the novel shifts toward the main mystery . . .

A slight kid walked up, wearing a fedora and a long brown raincoat. He had black hair and light brown skin. The boy placed a hand on the back of an empty chair and asked, “You gents mind?”

“It’s all yours, no one’s sitting there,” I said, expecting him to drag the chair to another table. But to my surprise, he sat down with us.

Zander stopped talking and paused to stare at our uninvited guest. The look on Zander’s face was basically: What the what?

“The name’s Talal” — he pronounced it slowly, tah-LAHL, so we got it right — “but you can call me Tal. That’s easier for most people,” he said in a soothing voice. Talal rested an elbow on the back of the chair. He folded an ankle across a knee. “And you are the zombie guy,” he added, turning to address me.

“That’s me,” I said. “The zombie guy.”

“Why are you here?” Zander asked. “We’re not bothering anybody.”

“I’m a detective,” Talal replied. “You could say that I’m working on a case.”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“I prefer the term gumshoe,” Talal continued, “except nobody knows what it means anymore. So, sure, I’m a private eye.”

I decided to play along. “How can we help you, gumshoe?”

“Call me, Tal. It’s simpler.”

“Okay, detective,” I replied.

Zander glanced in my direction. He clearly didn’t trust this new kid at our table. But as far as I could tell, Talal seemed harmless. Besides, I was curious.

Talal lifted the fedora off his head and placed it, ever so gently, on the table. He clawed his hand through his hair, as if scratching the back of an appreciative Labrador retriever.

“What makes you a detective?” Zander asked.

“What do you mean?” Talal asked.

Zander looked annoyed. His voice rose a notch in volume. “I mean, big deal, you say you’re a detective. Anybody could say that. Saying so doesn’t make it true.”

Talal stared long and patiently. He slow-blinked once, twice, with all the urgency of a three-toed sloth. Then he fished in the depths of his trench coat pocket and produced a business card. He ran his thumb across the edge of it and, flicking two fingers, sent it spinning across the table and into my lap.


Talal turned to Zander. “Believe whatever you like. I’m what the card says I am.”

Zander smiled. “And I’m a horned toad. There, I said it. Does that make it true?”

Talal was amused. “No, big guy, the saying doesn’t make it so. It’s the believing that matters. You don’t really think you’re a toad, do you?”

Zander didn’t answer.

“It’s the believing in things that counts,” Talal repeated for emphasis, “as long as you’re asking.”

“Like in Santa Claus?” Zander teased.

“Like in anything,” Talal replied. “The tooth fairy, dinosaurs, zombies, kindness, whatever floats your boat.” Talal returned the hat to the top of his head and deftly zipped a pointed index finger across the front brim. “I didn’t come here to philosophize. You have my card.”

“We don’t need it,” Zander said.

“Maybe not you, but I think he might,” Talal said, jerking a thumb in my direction. “And I bet he knows it, too.”

“I’m not going to hire a detective,” I protested.

“It’s already been handled,” Talal replied. “Your friend paid for my services.”

“My friend?” I couldn’t think of anybody.

“A tall and angular girl,” he intoned, “the angel looking over your shoulder. Cash in advance. Consider yourself lucky.”


Talal shrugged as if it didn’t matter. “She said trouble’s coming your way, and figured I might be able to steer you clear.”

I struggled to process the information. My unlife was getting weirder by the minute. It felt like Gia had some sort of plan for me, but I had no idea what it was. Still, there was something oddly reassuring about Talal. He was a character, for certain, but I guess I heard Dane’s voice in my ear: Everybody’s different and nobody’s perfect.

Who was I to say that Talal wasn’t good enough to sit at our table? There was plenty of room.

Zander, on the other hand, acted protective. “How are you going to help Adrian? All I see is a kid in a trench coat who talks tough, like you just stepped out of some old black-and-white movie. What do you know?”

[EDIT: Pay Attention, Folks! Here’s where Talal profiles Zander!]

Talal leaned back in his chair, calmly tented his fingers together. “What do I know? I’ll tell you what I know . . .”

He spoke the next part in rapid pitter-pat style: “I know you had a rough time this morning. You barely had a minute to wolf down a bowl of Rice Krispies. You missed the bus, but that’s no problem, because Mommy drives you anyway.”

“Hold on,” Zander said. “How did you know–?”

Talal explained. “There’s a trace of shampoo in your right ear, your socks don’t match, and there’s a dried Rice Krispie kernel stuck to your shirt. Judging by the mud splatter on the cuffs of your jeans, I’d bet ten balloons you tried to jump the puddle by the curb at the student drop-off. You didn’t quite make it. Don’t feel too bad, champ — it’s probably because of the extra twenty pounds of books you lug around in your backpack, because you are exactly the kind of kid who carries his books everywhere. I’d bet another ten balloons you make the honor roll every semester. You’re smart and you work hard. That’s a good thing, congratulations.” Talal flicked a finger. “I can also see the pink edge of a late pass poking out of your shirt pocket. What else do I know? You’re a little sloppy, but it doesn’t take a detective to figure that out. More importantly, you are not the kind of guy who spends time in front of a mirror. Either you don’t care how you look, or you care too much. So much that maybe it hurts. Hard for me to say, we’ve only just met, but I know this: Everybody cares, we just hide it in different ways.”

Zander didn’t need to hear any more. He squirmed in uncomfortable silence, like a living butterfly pinned to a wall. Talal turned out to be a pretty sharp detective after all.


“This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message. A strong addition to school and public library collections.” — School Library Journal.

Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale of a middle-schooler who craves normalcy, and environmental issues with some currency make the story even more relatable. Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers, and they’ll be glad of the hint at a follow-up. — Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books.

“The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc. Having inexplicably survived a fatal hit-and-run accident over the summer, aptly named Adrian Lazarus is off to seventh grade, sporting a hoodie to hide his increasing facial disfigurement and lunching on formaldehyde smoothies to keep himself together. Simultaneously resenting and yet understanding the varied reactions of his schoolmates—which range from shunning to all-too-close attention from a particularly persistent bully—Adrian is also surprised and pleased to discover that he has allies, notably Gia Demeter, a new girl with a peculiar ability to foretell certain events. Preller might have played this as a light comedy (and there are some hilarious bits), but he goes instead for darker inflections. Even as Adrian sees himself becoming ominously aggressive (while developing tastes for roadkill and raw meat), his discovery that fabulously powerful data miners Kalvin and Kristoff Bork are ruthlessly scheming to put him under the knife in search of the secret to his longevity cranks the suspense up another notch. Nonetheless, in a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending.” — Booklist, Starred Review

“Preller takes the physical and emotional awkwardness of middle school to grisly levels . . . [and] thoughtfully chronicles the anxieties of middle school, using a blend of comedy and horror, to send a message of empowerment and acceptance.” — Publishers Weekly.