“I found out two things today. One, I think I’m dying. And two, my brother is a perv.”
So begins the diary of 14-year-old Jenna Samuels, who is having a very bad eighth-grade year. Her single mother spends all day in bed. Dad vanished when she was eight. Her 16-year-old brother, Casey, tries to hold together what’s left of the family by working two after-school jobs – difficult, as he’s stoned all the time. To make matters worse, Jenna is sick. When she collapses one day, Casey tries to race her to the hospital in their beat-up Prius and crashes instead.
Jenna wakes up in the ER to find Casey beside her. Beatified. Literally. The flab and zits? Gone. Before long, Jenna figures out that Casey didn’t survive the accident at all. He’s an “A-word.” (She can’t bring herself to utter the truth.) Soon they discover that Jenna isn’t just dying; she’s being poisoned. And Casey has been sent back to help solve the mystery that not only holds the key to her survival, but also to their mother’s mysterious depression and father’s disappearance.
I’ll admit, angel books are not normally my “thing.” I’m wary of them because they tend to be a bit too self-righteous for me. THE SWEET DEAD LIFE is a refreshing relief from the typical angel book, in that you won’t find characters with a superiority complex or overly-preachy moral messages that make you want to chuck the book at the wall in disgust. No, instead, you’ll find angels (and non-angels) that smoke pot, cuss like sailors, masturbate, and generally behave like, well, humans. This is where the book exceeded my expectations, and at the same time, fell short of what I thought it could have been.
Allow me to elaborate by focusing on what I felt was good in this book: First, the characters. Jenna Samuels was so refreshing! She has a sarcastic, witty voice that kept me in splits for a good chunk of the book. This girl says what she thinks and is not quick to censor herself, which is typical of most 14-year-olds. Similarly, the other characters, from Jenna’s older brother, Casey, to her best friend, Mags, and even ol’ Nurse Ed with the purple Crocs, all had depth and personality that just jumped off the page. The humor sprinkled throughout the pages, both within the scenes and the dialogue, made THE SWEET DEAD LIFE an easy, entertaining read, and is a big part of what kept me going until the end. If Joy Preble’s night-job isn’t as a stand-up comedian, it should be! I also enjoyed the overall mystery of the plot, and though I did recognize who the villian would be early on, the way everything unfolded was very satisfying. Finally, I give Joy high marks for including so much of the Houston/Texas I know and love within the pages of THE SWEET DEAD LIFE. It’s so neat reading about places and street names with which you are familiar.“Hey, I was just there!”
Now, on to the things that didn’t quite work for me. I mentioned earlier how I liked that THE SWEET DEAD LIFE doesn’t beat you over the head with a moral message. While this is true, I also thought that the almost-constant mention of pot and porn, as well as the excessive cussing, were just too much. I know (some) teenagers do and say these things, and I think I understand what Joy was going for – that is, no one is perfect – but it seemed that the inclusion of these -ahem- activities was more for shock value or in an obvious attempt to avoid the “heavenly being” cliches. The main character is 14, yet I would not feel comfortable giving this book to any middle grader, so while it is a bit of a cross-over between Middle Grade and Young Adult, I’d say this book is more for older Young Adults. The pacing of the story was decent-to-good, but I did have an image in my head of wheels spinning but getting no traction for several portions of the book. Finally, the ending fell flat for me. It’s not a happily-ever-after, and it really can’t be, since there’s going to be a sequel, but it was an ending that didn’t exactly inspire me to read the next book in the series.
Coming up with a final rating for THE SWEET DEAD LIFE was really hard. I’ve been trying not to split hairs with half-stars, but in the end, this one demanded that I do. It wasn’t quite 4-star material for me, and honestly, I hate that because I love Joy and I especially love supporting local authors. However, the good outshone the bad and this is why I gave the rating I did. Overall, THE SWEET DEAD LIFE was a well-written and fun read, and many of my good friends did enjoy it. You may, too! I recommend that you give it a try and see for yourself!
*An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.