Thursday, July 04, 2024

The Worst Perfect Moment, by Shivaun Plozza

Tegan is dead, killed while riding her bike.  But heaven isn't anything like she expected it. Instead of clouds and pearly gates, she'd found herself at the Marybelle Motor Lodge in New Jersey.  The motel is hardly a happy memory -- this was the place where her father took her and her young sister after their mother walked out on them.  It was the place where he promptly had a four-day breakdown and Tegan had to take care of her sister.  It is not any sort of afterlife that Tegan ever imagined.

But that's exactly what it is, explains Zelda, a smart aleck girl Tegan's age who appears at the motel's front office.  She's Tegan's angel (she even has the wings to prove it!) and she's reconstructed the Marybelle in all its run-down glory because she's convinced that the absolute happiest moment of Tegan's life was during the time she spent here.  And that being so, it is the place where Tegan will now be spending all of eternity.  Tegan is flabbergasted and horrified, insisting that this is in fact the worst moment of her life and that Zelda has made a mistake.

The two girls tussle over this matter until Tegan learns that she can appeal her angel's decision and sets in motion a process of review.  Within the next month, Zelda must convince Tegan that the Marybelle was actually Tegan's moment of "peak happiness" or the forces of heaven will accept that a mistake was made, with grave and dire consequences for both tegan and Zelda.

The end result is a sort of YA This Is Your Life as Zelda takes Tegan traveling through time to highlight particularly pivotal moments in her sixteen years that gradually unravel the mystery of why Zelda believes that Tegan needs the Marybelle.  Along the way a very unusual romance develops between Tegan and Zelda and the notion of "perfect happiness" takes a bit of a beating.  

YA books about the afterlife are always a curious genre (Zevin's Elsewhere is my personal favorite) as they doesn't seem like they have an obvious go-to topic.  What teen really frets about dying or wants to read about what happens after death?  But nonetheless, some of the most creative work is done in books like this.  Plozza's vision of the afterlife is a bit dark and malevolent for my tastes, but largely she makes it out to be like an alternative high school, complete with a really cool guidance counselor, a cranky office secretary, and various hapless assistant principals. She posits that a successful life in heaven consists of being at peace with the mistakes and regrets of your prior life (but then allows Tegan to challenge those ideas).  The conclusion that heaven itself is flawed will give theologians headaches.  Regardless, the book's weightier themes are refreshing.

Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Thirsty, by Jas Hammonds

For the last couple of years, Blake, her BFF Annetta, and her girlfriend Ella have had the same dream:  get accepted at Jameswell College and pledge the Serena Society.  For Annetta and Ella, joining the Serena Society means following in their mothers' footsteps.  For Blake, whose parents did not go to college, Serena a gateway to a new world.  The Serena Society is a sorority for women of color, populated with some of the most influential women in the country.  Membership means a lifetime of networking and support, and an opportunity to enter a world of power and privilege that Blake can only dream of.  But she knows that, unlike her friends, she doesn't really belong there, so she does everything she can to fit in and be liked.

And for Blake, being liked has come easiest when she's drinking and  acting the life of the party.  The fact that she blacks out and does irresponsible and dangerous things when she drinks doesn't initially bother her because everyone occasionally drinks to excess, don't they?  And anyway, Ella assures her that it's fine.  But as Blake's behavior starts to hurt her friendship with Annetta and strain relations with her own family, Blake starts to wonder if she's gone too far.  With the future of her candidacy at Serena on the line, Blake must make choices between her friends, her family, and her dreams.

Tackling racism, classism, transphobia, alcoholism, suicidal ideation, and many other triggering subjects, this is one very busy story!  Blake, in a word, has issues: mostly, problems with confidence but tinged by family tensions and her discomfort with being mixed race.  That lack of confidence makes her easy pickings for the toxic affection of her abusive girlfriend.  The whole business of pledging Serena just pours gasoline on this smoldering mess.  Of it all, alcohol dependency is actually the least of her issues.  Her real "thirst" is for self-respect and she's not good at finding a potable supply.

I think this was a really good book and I was very impressed with how it dealt with its many issues.  It's one of the few books on racism that I've read that didn't feel like it was lecturing me (even though I was most certainly learning).  It's a bit of a spoiler, but the fact that Serena does not end the book at an AA meeting took me by surprise.  And the relationship between Blake and Ella ends with a lot more nuance than I was expecting.  I haven't read Hammonds first novel, We Deserve Monuments, but I'm now very intrigued and may well go back and do so.  Original and profound, with a strong uncompromising voice.