by Elizabeth Norris
The end of the world is coming! When a book begins with the heroine getting hit by a truck and killed in the first chapter, you know you’re in for a good time. 17-year-old Janelle Tenner somehow wakes up miraculously unhurt, however, and staring into the eyes of a boy she barely knows. In the 24 days that follow, she has to figure out what Ben has to do with her strange revival, as well as how her FBI agent father’s investigation into a series of unidentified burn victims might tie into her own story…and the fate of her entire world.
This sci-fi mystery took me by surprise, in a very good way. While I go into all YA novels with an open mind, particularly when the premise is as intriguing as this one, I admit to a certain degree of ennui after slogging through so many tedious paranormal romances that don’t add very much to the genre. Despite its somewhat ambiguous blurb, it’s nice to find that this is not PNR at all, although I think it will definitely still appeal to fans of that genre. While there discussions of quantum physics, viral engineering, and various other interesting theories, the book is written in a very accessible and entertaining way. The story does take some cues from X-Files, Fringe, Veronica Mars, and a host of other sources, but I don’t think anyone but the most hard-core fans of those shows will nitpick with the influences that are found here.
Janelle’s leafing through her father’s case files: I’m the type to do this too, especially if I found reports of severe radiation poisoning that resulted in gelatinous, melty humans. Let me say that again: gelatinous melty humans.
Janelle’s dad: We really only get to know him much later in the book, but her relationship with him was plausibly complicated, with the confusing combination of anger and frustration and love and guilt and regret that starts to surface at that age.
A romance that eventually grew on me: I was relatively indifferent to Ben and Janelle as a couple at first, but I gradually warmed up to their relationship. The first cute moment came with grape soda, and then their attraction grew into a keen connection that I became invested in.
Realistic family drama and setting: Janelle’s father is a workaholic and her mother is bipolar and unreliable, so it’s up to her to parent herself and her younger brother. I thought the family dynamic was well done, and it added an interesting complexity and tension to Janelle’s situation. I also liked the way Janelle’s school life was a part of the book, because it’s such a big part of being a teenager and yet often gets ignored in YA.
Things that could have been smoothed out a bit more:
There’s a lot crammed into 450 pages:
While I appreciate the fact that this isn’t not a sketchy wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am kind of book, some of the subplots did seem a bit superfluous. If the ex-boyfriend, subplot about rape, etc. were more compelling, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt that way, but as it is, I think the book easily could have rid itself of 100 pages without losing anything vital.
Fairly unremarkable secondary characters: Aside from Janelle and Ben, Janelle’s dad, and her ex-boyfriend Nick, most of the other characters blended together for me.
The structure: the choice to break up the story into segments corresponding with the mysterious countdown is a good one, but I’m not sure it was necessary to have so many short breakdowns, to the point that essentially each change in scene merits its own chapter. Because the story also flits back and forth as it fills us in on backstory, there were occasions when it also disrupted the flow of the story. We’re in the middle of a tense scene at the climax of the book, for example, when we suddenly step out of the action to a flashback of Halloween, which could have easily been included elsewhere.
A couple of overly dramatic gun-brandishing moments, one of which I suppose could be explained away as the character’s extreme agitation after finding out upsetting news, but it’s a little harder to look the other way when it’s being done by an FBI agent.
Writing technique occasionally trumping story: this goes back to the structure thing, although there are other moments when I felt a little jolted out of the engrossing plot because of a line that is included for irony or affect. For example, Ben’s unorthodox way of telling Janelle how he feels about her, “I fucking love you,” is strangely commandeered by someone else during an important scene towards the end of the book. In my opinion, the emotional punch of a poignant moment was interrupted and diminished because of that inclusion.
Despite these criticisms (and my dislike for the Heroes-like tagline), I very much enjoyed this book, which is the first one in a planned series. While I wasn’t really surprised by any of the twists and it wasn’t a story that moved me strongly enough to tears, I did find that the way the author explores the aftermath of grief and separation seemed very true to life, particularly in Janelle’s conflicting feelings and the heavy weight of her responsibilities. That strong opening scene is also bookended with a fantastic ending, one that leaves the door open for the story continue, but also feels emotionally satisfying—even if it is extremely wistful, bittersweet one.
Unraveling by Elizabeth Norris is a great blend of science fiction, mystery, and romance with solid writing and a memorable story, and this debut author is definitely one to watch.
This review also appears on GoodReads. An advance copy was provided by the publisher.