Book Review: Unraveling by Elizabeth Norris

by Elizabeth Norris
Balzer + Bray/ April 24, 2012
445 pages
Source: ARC Courtesy of DAC ARC Tours


Two days before the start of her junior year, seventeen-year-old Janelle Tenner is hit by a pickup truck and killed—as in blinding light, scenes of her life flashing before her, and then nothing. Except the next thing she knows, she’s opening her eyes to find Ben Michaels, a loner from her high school whom Janelle has never talked to, leaning over her. And even though it isn’t possible, she knows—with every fiber of her being—that Ben has somehow brought her back to life.

But her revival, and Ben’s possible role in it, is only the first of the puzzles that Janelle must solve. While snooping in her FBI agent father’s files for clues about her accident, she uncovers a clock that seems to be counting down to something—but to what? And when someone close to Janelle is killed, she can no longer deny what’s right in front of her: Everything that’s happened—the accident, the murder, the countdown clock, Ben’s sudden appearance in her life—points to the end of life as she knows it. And as the clock ticks down, she realizes that if she wants to put a stop to the end of the world, she’s going to need to uncover Ben’s secrets—and keep from falling in love with him in the process.

From debut author Elizabeth Norris comes this shattering novel of one girl’s fight to save herself, her world, and the boy she never saw coming.(Taken from Gooodreads.)

Opening Line:

“I can tell the exact moment Nick steps on the beach.”

My Take On It:

Holy. Cow. This. Book! This book was not at all what I expected it to be. I’m going to be echoing those sentiments the entire review so I offer my apologies now. But it is SO true. The synopsis above alludes to something paranormal-ish or supernatural-ish, right? And it is, to a degree. But, what it doesn’t tell you, and I don’t believe that I am giving anything away here, it is also some straight up awesome science fiction (does a little happy dance), which I LOVE and which seems to be a popular trend in YA lit right now (does a second little happy dance.) But wait! There’s more! It also reads a lot like a contemporary at times. This book has it all! Still not sold? Read on, friends.

First a question: If you are like me, you love YA (you are reading this blog after all, and that’s pretty much all I review) but, tell the truth, how  many of the heroines featured in YA lit annoy the crap out of you? I’m talking about the ones that seem not only completely inept at times (fumbling and stumbling in the presence of a hot guy) but can be whiny and clingy and make the most RIDICULOUS decisions regarding EVERYTHING (especially guys) over and over again? I’m not saying that everyone doesn’t make mistakes. Sometimes making mistakes results in great stories. And I’m not talking about being perfect. Perfect characters can be BORING. But you know those handful of examples of totally kick ass heroines in YA Lit that you can think of off the top of your head? (Here’s my quick list: Katniss, Katsa, Evanjalin, Tris, Rose, Taylor, and Karou) Well, take my advice, just go ahead and add Janelle Tenner to that list. Because not only is she kick ass (her dad is an FBI agent who used to take her to target practice for kicks) but the girl knows what she wants, when she wants it, and goes right after it. Hallelujah to the strong-willed as well as strong-armed heroine!!

When first introduced to Janelle Tenner, I thought she was a bit superficial, she’s got the hot lifeguard boyfriend, and she plays all the games that high school chicks seem to play to get said hot lifeguard boyfriend. But then I began to see other dimensions to Janelle’s personality. Like the side of her that takes care of her younger brother almost single handedly because her mother is mentally ill and her father  works all the time (and uses his work as an escape from the mentally ill mother.)  And Janelle is smart. Like super smart with a streak of detective in her.  When the accident occurs, Janelle is hit by a car and sustains life ending injuries. It could be lights out right there, until the mysterious Ben Michaels steps in, and somehow, saves Janelle’s life.

This is where the story really takes off. Janelle is determined to find out how Ben did this, and the most incredible, mind blowing story begins to unfold. All these different occurrences, from Janelle’s accident, to a series of unexplained murders that her father and the FBI are investigating, to a mysterious and ominous countdown present themselves and just when I was kind of scratching my head wondering what the heck any of these things meant, BAM! Everything begins to connect and the book takes off in an entirely new and completely unexpected way. And somehow, somehow, author Elizabeth Norris manages to accomplish all of this seamlessly, without confusing me (or even  irritating me) at all. I am still kind of stunned at how she manages to pull it off!
So we have a rockin’ MC and we have a really amazing plot, hmmm… what am I forgetting. What about the ROMANCE? Well. It’s there friends, it is SO there. Ben. Ben Michaels.The hero.The savior. Sound cliché? Hold up! There is more to this boy than meets the eye. Yes, he’s the mysterious, bad boy type. And Janelle thinks she has him all figured out, until she discovers she doesn’t. Holy cow you guys. Can Elizabeth Norris write some engaging scenes between these two characters. My favorite scene: the exchange between the two in English lit class when they are discussing a passage from Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. (I have never read this but I’m going to now:)

“So this isn’t a marriage proposal you would say yes to?”  Ben says. he’s giving me that half smile again. Like he already knows the answer. 

 I can’t help but smile back. 

“No, it’s not.”

“You wouldn’t want some guy confessing his love for you, and saying he’d do anything for you–even die–that wouldn’t be enough for you?” 

My face floods with heat again, I can’t believe Ben Micahels is making me feel like I’m not smart enough to argue. I think I might hate him.

“What, you want some guy to propose by putting an announcement on the Jumbotron at a baseball game or something?” Ben asks.

“Oh please, that’s ridiculous. I don’t want someone announcing to the whole world that he’s proposing to me. It shouldn’t be about the whole world–it should be about just the two of them.”

“So your perfect proposal, what would it be?”

“Seriously?” I look at Poblete and she shrugs, obviously enjoying the real-world application. “I don’t know. It would just be the two of us and I guess I’d want him to say something honest, not overly romantic, not something that would make a great story to tell his friends. I’d just want him to lean over…” as I say it, I lean slightly toward Ben, close enough that I can feel the warmth of his body radiating into the empty space between us, and drop the volume of my voice, “…and say ‘Janelle Tenner, f- ing marry me.” 

{Except she doesn’t say f-ing, she says the real word, and you know what? I’m not a big advocate of curse words in YA, especially when they are shoved in there for no reason, but here it f-ing works. And yes, there is more language like that in Unraveling (at least there was in the ARC I read.) Not ALL the time, just interspersed, you know, like real life teenagers talk. No big deal.}

And that moment between Janelle and Ben is just the beginning. There are so many more passages that I absolutely swooned over. I wish I could include all of them here for you,  because seriously, this was some of the hottest, yet at the same moment both heartfelt and honest, romance I have read in a long time. I LOVED it.

And I can’t tell you how impressed I am by this debut author. Elizabeth Norris has somehow managed to capture the unique tone of a young adult, her writing rings true with authenticity. Her words don’t sound like an adult imitating a teenager. I don’t think that’s as easy to pull off as it seems, in fact I know it isn’t, judging  by some of the YA books being published today. Sorry, if that’s harsh but it’s the truth.

Unraveling  isn’t a quick read, at 445 pages, and with such an intricate and complex story line, it’s not what I would call a ‘light’ read. But don’t let that dissuade you from reading it. There are parts to the story that, at the time I read them, I thought “Why is Norris including this? It doesn’t seem to move the book further along or it doesn’t seem relevant.”  But at some point later in my reading I would have one of those “A ha!” moments and I’d suddenly understand, so that’s why it’s there! Nine times out of ten it developed the plot, or gave teeth to Janelle’s character in some way.

Unraveling is full of action and not afraid to take chances. It kept me guessing throughout, and surprised me over and over again. I started out thinking I knew what this book was going to be about, thinking I knew the direction it was going to take, only to discover that was not the case at all. In short: Unraveling blew my mind. I can’t wait for the book to release later this month so I can hear what the rest of the world thinks because this book kept me up late thinking about all it’s twists and turns and open possibilities. Unraveling is the first book in a planned series (thank goodness, because if this was the end… Gah! I’m not even going to go there…) My advice: Pre-order it and get ready for the ride:)

Update: Elizabeth Norris is giving away a signed copy of Unraveling  to one lucky winner! Hop over to her blog to enter:)

5/5 Stars (because this book surprised me from start to finish!)

Cover Thoughts

I like the cover, I like the model who is portraying Janelle (more so than the version of Ben) and I like the sort of hall-of-mirrors in-a fun-house effect:) Plus that girl’s leather jacket is killer.