Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Book Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL DEATH by Sarah J. Schmitt

First Paragraph(s): The gypsy fortune-teller at the Halloween carnival predicts I’ll have a long life full of possibilities. Of course, that’s right before she uses me as a human shield to avoid the outstretched hand of a black-cloak-clad, sickle-wielding Grim Reaper and then flees hysterically from the tent. Really, if you think about it, that makes her a liar and a murderer. I better get a refund. 
And no matter what the Grim Reaper says about not meaning to collect my soul, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m looking down at my lifeless body while my friends stare at each other. Hello? Call 911. Or maybe someone could start doing CPR. Idiots. 
“Come with me,” the Reaper insists, tugging on my arm. “There isn’t much time.” 
I shake him off and shoot my best withering glare in his direction. “I don’t think so. You saw what she did. You were coming for her, not me. She’s the one you should be hauling out of here.” 
And then he shrugs his shoulders. Is he kidding? He rips my soul from my body and the next minute acts like I’m asking to change the station on the car radio. 

Have you ever read such an exciting opening, Esteemed Reader? Probably you have, there are a lot of great books in the world, so you've got me there. But you have to admit that's one's pretty darn good:) There are few ways as interesting to open a novel as with the death of the main character and by the end of the first paragraph, Schmitt has established the tone of this novel and the voice of the story. 

"Sarah J. Schmitt's It's a Wonderful Death is a wonderful read." --Robert Kent, Middle Grade Ninja (this blurb available for future editions). Also this one: "It's a wonderful breath of fresh air." Or my all time favorite blurb that Gideon's Spear declined to use for some reason (they hate selling lots of books and making fat stacks of cash, I guess): "In the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, having watched everyone you ever knew or loved burn to a cinder, as you sit waiting for the radiation sickness to put you out and at last take your pain away, those hours will be made less agonizing by reading Darby Karchut's Gideon's Spear Sarah J. Schmitt's It's a Wonderful Death."

Actually, one of the for real blurbs being used in the marketing of this book is from our old friend Mike Mullin. My own YA novel has one of those. And so if you're wondering, do all you Indiana YA authors know each other and blurb each other's books all day? The answer is yes; yes, we do. I've bumped into Sarah at multiple conferences and she always makes me smile and I'm looking forward to seeing her at future events. It's always exciting to read an excellent debut novel sure to launch its author toward super-stardom, but it's even more exciting when that author is someone you know and like and want good things to happen for.

It's a Wonderful Death is a fun fantasy set in the afterlife (or maybe the pre-afterlife) with just enough moral underpinning to be part Sunday school lesson as taught by somebody cool and funny who knows she's making it all up as do we, so there's none of that icky religious aftertaste:) Although Sarah J. Schmitt's afterlife seems to be influenced primarily by Christian and Greek mythology, Buddha puts in an appearance and all faiths (or lack thereof) are welcome:

“What if I don’t believe in God?”
He looks at me like he can’t believe what I’m asking. “Do you think all this is happening in your imagination?”
“No, I mean, what if I’m Buddhist or Hindu or something else?”
Understanding dawns on his face. “Do you think God cares what name you use? That’s something you humans get caught up in.”

If you're looking for some hardcore religious fiction, surely somebody's working on another extension to the Left Behind series, but this isn't that. This is closer to Dead Like Me or Defending Your Life, and I say we need more books about the afterlife we don't have to pretend are nonfiction. In fact, writing such a novel is on my bucket list and I'm always curious to read someone else's interpretation.

It's a Wonderful Death is related to us through the prism of sarcastic and snarky Rowena Joy Jones, a high school senior whose job is to win homecoming queen and who never apologizes to anyone ever. If she's sounds a bit irritating to you, Esteemed Reader, remember she dies in the first paragraph of the novel:) Here's how RJ Jones reflects on her passing while floating above her body in a fun variation on the old character looking-at-themselves-in-a-mirror routine:

I scan the rest of my body and notice the way my neck is tilting at a weird angle. Of course that could be because my jet black hair is pulled up in a messy bun. No one can lay comfortably with a bun. It’s physically impossible.
Other than all that, I look like I always do: perfect.

The afterlife, or perhaps Limbo is more accurate, first appears to be a ride on the The Polar Express to... wait for it... the Bureau of Motor Vehicles! Not really, but RJ does have to be processed, which involves sitting around in a large waiting room with other newly departed souls. In fact, there's a lot of being bounced from courtrooms and lawyers and guardian angles that goes into to standing at the golden gates of Heaven which are directly across from the gates of Hell. One of my favorite details is that RJ has to allow her life to be flashed before her eyes courtesy of laser disc:

He sighs. “It’s where they check you in and give you the recording of your life.”
“You mean like a DVD?” 
“Actually, they use laser discs up here.”
“Laser what?”
The Reaper gives me a look of exasperation. “You never stop asking questions, do you? Think of it like this: if an album and DVD had a baby, it would look like a laser disc. It’s a failed technology experiment from the nineteen eighties and nineties.”
“Album?” I ask.
 “You don’t know what an album is?”
In spite of everything, I’m having a good time watching him get flustered by my random questions. It’s one of many weapons in my verbal arsenal. “Relax, I know what it is. I saw one in a museum once.”

One of my favorite details is that RJ has to allow her life to be flashed before her eyes courtesy of laser disc, and she doesn't like what she sees: The older I get the more hateful this video is making me look. There’s no way I was that mean. Is there? And here is how Sarah J. Schmitt is able to not only show us not only who RJ has been but how her decisions, however small they seem at the time, have shaped her life. And all of this brings us to central conflict of our tale, judgement:

With a sigh, Peter sits down on the ground and motions for me to do the same. “Everyone has a plan before them. They have a purpose. Each choice they make keeps them on their path or leads them off course.” 
“Okay,” I say, still not understanding what he’s trying to say. 
“Well, you were pretty far off the path. In fact, you weren’t even in the same forest you started in.”
My shoulders drop. “But I still had my whole life in front of me. Maybe I would’ve changed.”
“Maybe,” he admits. “But for the first seventeen years you put yourself before others. You were more interested in being popular than being a good person.” 
“People can be both,” I argue. He shrugs. Wow. There is nothing like having Saint Peter insinuate that you suck as a human being.

And then later:

Zachriel continues: “In her mind, she knows she has done certain things that can never be redeemed, no matter how long she lives on Earth. She is shockingly callous in her treatment of others and easily manipulated by those she considers to be her friends.” 
The person he’s describing sounds weak and pathetic. There’s no way he’s talking about me. And why doesn’t he mention any of the good things I’ve done? 
“She has accomplished some marginal success in her life,” he adds. “There are acts of charity and moments where she seems on the verge of moving toward the path she’s meant to be on.” 
Well, that’s something. And then he drops the bomb. 
“But those moments are few and far between. In my opinion, to recast the fate of the world for this soul would be a waste of time. There is no evidence to 85 indicate that she would in fact make any changes in her life or that her continued presence among the living would make for a better society.”

So is RJ cast into Hell and tortured for eternity or is she returned to her life forever changed by her experience to run through the streets of Bedford Falls and be all Merry-Christmas-movie-houououousssse? Esteemed Reader, you'll have to read It's a Wonderful Death to find out and you should. It's a fun, irreverent story that's clever and witty throughout and it kept me chuckling from start to finish. And I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of RJ Jones and we certainly haven't seen the last of Sarah J. Schmitt. We'll see her here on Thursday to face the 7 Questions:)

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from It's a Wonderful Death:

“Can’t you at least tell me where we’re going?” I ask, sucking in my breath, which is pointless since I don’t actually need to breathe anymore. Still, there’s something comforting in doing it.

As much as I call Felicity my bestie, the truth is, we’re only friends because we know too much about each other to be enemies. It’s a relationship of tactical means.

“Well, look here,” he says, his thick Caribbean Island accent rolling off his tongue, and I can almost feel a tropical breeze blow gently through the room.

Hazel is trembling like the last leaf left on a tree in November.

“Over there. Next to gate. Is that Saint Peter?” 
Yeats glances up toward the line waiting to get into Heaven. “That would be him.” 
I stretch my neck to get a better look. “Who’s that guy sitting next to him?” 
“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of the Buddha,” Yeats scoffs. 
I try to cover up my surprise with indignation. “Yeah, I know who he is, but why is he here?” 
“I thought we covered this already,” Hazel says with a sigh. “It’s not God who has problems with other religions. That’s a mankind thing. Buddhists have as much right to the eternal grace as anyone else.” 
A smirk spreads over my face. “What about Scientologists?” 
Hazel’s face turns bright red as she starts to answer, but Yeats steps in front of her. “Why don’t we go see Peter?” He takes my elbow and leads me through the crowd, leaving Hazel to simmer.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

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