Janie Chodosh,
Death Spiral
(Poisoned Pencil Press, 2014)

Poisoned Pen Press, a mystery publisher out of Scottsdale, Arizona, has come up with a fine idea: under the Poisoned Pencil imprint, they're doing a line of mysteries for young adults. Death Spiral is the first, and it's the beginning of a series that the publisher has dubbed the Faith Flores Science Mysteries.

Faith Flores, a 16-year-old Philadelphia high school student, is bright, edgy and self-possessed. She's also a little screwed up. Her mother, a heroin addict, didn't exactly provide the most stable upbringing for Faith and recently died of an overdose. Faith's life was completely overturned, and she wound up in the suburbs living with her Aunt T and her aunt's boyfriend, Sam. She feels she doesn't belong anywhere.

But then she discovers that maybe her mom's death wasn't from an overdose. Maybe there's more to it than that. Faith's mother's friend, Melinda, tells her that her mother was in a treatment program and wasn't using at the end of her life. Despite the coroner's report that says heroin was in her body, Faith can't accept that her mother's death was due to an overdose. She sets out to learn the truth and is drawn into a conspiracy so vast she can't possibly get through to the truth about her mother's death -- especially when every time she gets a good lead, the person who supplied it winds up dead.

But then again maybe Faith can get through to the truth and bring her mother some belated justice.

Author Janie Chodosh is a high school teacher and she knows that scene intimately. When she is writing about school life, she is so dead on you feel that you're walking the halls with these students and seeing the world through their eyes. There's no stereotyping of young people here, no trading in types or laughable imitations. You don't have Hollywood teenagers where the characters reflect '60s attitudes and speak the slang middle-aged writers spoke when they were in school. No, Chodosh writes from observation and she observes beautifully. The characters are the main strength of the novel.

This is especially true for first-person narrator, Faith. Chodosh has captured her voice brilliantly. You keep reading simply because you believe this person and want to spend more time in her company. In fact, not only do you believe her, you like her. The novel is worth reading simply to get to know Faith Flores.

Which is a good stroke because, on the plot level, the book kind of strains credibility. For a very bright girl, Faith does a couple of not bright things, and the conspiracy that she stumbles on isn't entirely convincing. The final climax tends to reach a little.

But hanging with Faith Flores makes minor plot problems acceptable. My guess is that in further titles in the series, Chodosh will learn to make the plot a touch more credible while keeping Flores' voice as strong as it is. As for me, well, I look forward to those titles, and I say this: if you are an adolescent girl or if you have one in your family, you or your kid should be reading Death Spiral.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

24 May 2014

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