ScienceThrillers.com review of Death Spiral by Janie Chodosh
(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)
Publication date: April 1, 2014
Category: YA mystery / science thriller
Tech rating (out of 5):
Summary (from the publisher):
Life is tough when you have a junkie for a mom. But when sixteen-year-old Faith Flores—scientist wannabe, loner, new girl in town—finds her mom dead on the bathroom floor, she refuses to believe her mom really OD’d. But the cops have closed the case and her Aunt T, with whom she now lives in the Philly ‘burbs, wants Faith to let go and move on.
But a note from Melinda, her mom’s junkie friend, leads Faith to a seedy downtown methadone clinic. Were her mom and Melinda trying to get clean?
When Melinda dies of an overdose, Faith tracks down the scientists behind the trial running at the methadone clinic. Soon she’s cutting school and lying to everyone—her aunt, her best friend, even the cops. Everyone, that is, except the strangely alluring Jesse, who believes the “real” education’s on the street and whose in-your-face honesty threatens to invade Faith’s self-imposed “no-dating” rule. A drug-dealer named Rat-Catcher warns Faith to back off, but it doesn’t stop Faith from confronting a genetics professor with a guilty conscience. When the medical examiner’s body winds up in the Schuylkill River, Faith realizes if she doesn’t act fast, she may be the next body in the morgue. Can Faith stop this deal gone bad from taking a sharp turn for the worse?
It’s a special event for me when a new young adult science thriller comes to my attention, because these books are rare. (Are you writing one? ScienceThrillers Media might like to publish it.)
Death Spiral: A Faith Flores Science Mystery made my day when I heard about it, and I was not disappointed in the reading. Set in Philadelphia, Death Spiral features a tortured but believable protagonist, sixteen-year-old Faith Flores, whose dogged pursuit of the truth about her mother’s death puts her on somebody’s hit list. I’m not a regular reader of YA fiction, but this novel seems to do a good job with teen dialogue (not hitting you over the head with slang). The usual teen-centric themes of ‘belonging’ and ‘becoming’ run strong in the story.
Author Janie Chodosh passes the science test. Death Spiral is a mystery that can only be solved by getting answers to the science questions. I love that. Chodosh handles the science gently but accurately so readers should not be put off by tech. The science revolves around a clinical trial for treating heroin addiction. Antisense RNA, gene therapy, and genome sequencing are all relevant. In a nice touch, the author brings up issues related to genetic testing. What happens if you know you’re at risk for a genetic disease? Would you want to know?
The story’s climax is set in the most delightfully unconventional place: the ballroom of a major science conference during a keynote address. I loved that this seemingly dull setting was charged with excitement. In this scene, the sharing of scientific information takes on paramount importance. The scientific logic of the criminal, as it is finally revealed, makes sense on paper so I was satisfied. But in practice, the scheme would be needlessly complex and impractical to achieve the bad guy’s goals…
A few minor complaints: One of Faith’s defining characteristics is the way she shuts down her feelings and locks other people out. While this makes sense given her past, it does become grating at times; the reader wants to shake some sense into her as she self-inflicts wounds on her relationships. A minor character experiences an unbelievable recovery toward the end of the story, but this didn’t matter much. I also think the title doesn’t do this book any favors. It’s bland.
Clinical trials are experiments, but I wouldn’t describe enrollees as being “experimented on.” But this is a thriller/mystery novel so no surprise to find some big bad pharma and a “mad” scientist. The scientist and physician characters, of which there are several, are, as in real life, a diverse bunch of people, good, bad, well-intentioned, conflicted, and everything in between.
Faith Flores would fit right in. This reader was touched by Faith’s solid sense of self and is rooting for her and for millions of real-life teens to take the plunge and pursue the study of science.
A lovely quote from the text: “Sadness, with an atomic mass heavier than plutonium, settles in my chest.”
Unusual words or phrases: methadone clinic; antisense RNA; medical examiner; DNA sequence; inherited risk; genetic disease; idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis; heroin addiction; PluraGen; vector
Parent alert: some profanity. Unlike Double Helix, a similar book by Nancy Werlin, no sex in Death Spiral.