________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 25. . . .March 2, 2012


Unraveling Isobel.

Eileen Cook.
New York, NY: Simon Pulse (Distributed in Canada by Simon & Schuster Canada), 2012.
290 pp., hardcover, $18.99.
ISBN 978-1-4424-1327-6.

Subject Headings:

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

*** /4



I nibbled on my bagel. I was going to have to face up to a few things. Either:

1. I had been visited by the ghost of my dead stepsister.

2. I was going (or already was) crazy.

3. All the upheaval and changes of the past couple of months had caught up with me, resulting in a bad dream and delusions of paranormal activity. However, now that I'd gotten it all out of my system, everything would be fine. Nothing more than a nightmare brought on by change rather than too much dessert.

Anita believed in the other side. She thought most horror movies were basically documentaries, but I had always been more of a skeptic. As far as I could tell, dead was dead. Even if I made the assumption that there were ghosts, and that my stepsister had become one, why would Evelyn pick me to haunt? Why not haunt her dad or brother?

As for going crazy, although half of my genetic makeup had a leaning in that area, I refused to believe that I'd gone from sane to full-blown delusional in one night. After some consideration, I determined I didn't have any other crazy thoughts. I didn't think I was Napoleon, or that my bagel was an alien, and I didn't have voices in my head warning me about terrorist plots. Near as I could tell, I was still on the right side of sane. Granted, crazy people don't always know they're crazy, but it seemed to me if I could think through the issue so carefully, then I couldn't be insane. I took a deep breath and was almost 100 per cent convinced.

I finished my bagel and brushed my hands off. I decided that, given my options, C was my best bet. The past few weeks had been brutal, with tons of changes and upheavals: my mom announcing that she was getting married, meeting Dick, coping with Nathaniel's obvious disdain, having to move. It was no wonder I was seeing things. Come to think of it, it was surprising I hadn't been plagued with visions of ghosts or dancing hippos before now. That was practically proof of how sturdy my mental status was. I nodded stiffly at the wind chime and pulled the door closed on both the sunroom and any further thought of ghosts.


Life at the moment has its share of problems for Isobel. She is just beginning her senior year of high school when she is hit by an emotional whirlwind: her mother is getting married to someone she met on the Internet only a few months earlier and is planning to sell most of their possessions and move away from Seattle to a small island just off the northwest American coast. Say good-bye to friends and normal life and hello to a haunted mansion, an impossible stepbrother, and a creepy new stepdad. Who wouldn't start to feel 'unravelled' in a similar situation?

      Unraveling Isobel is Eileen Cook's fourth novel for young adults, and her experience shows, especially in the voice of Isobel, the young female protagonist. She is smart, feisty and has a sarcastic sense of humour. Forces over which she has no control seem to have taken over her life, and it is all Isobel can do to hold herself together. The fact that her parents split up years before because of her dad's schizophrenia doesn't help matters, nor does the fact that her stepdad suggests at every possible opportunity that she may well have inherited her dad's "crazy" genes.

      The novel is difficult to classify since there are elements of romance, mystery and thriller within the same story. Isobel becomes convinced that something strange, if not absolutely criminal, happened to her stepsister and the girl's mother. The simple story of their drowning just doesn't make sense once Isobel gets more of the facts. The more she sees and hears on the island about their deaths and other strange occurrences, the more determined she becomes to figure out just what happened at the Wickham estate.

      Thus the plot of the novel moves quickly and effortlessly through a roller coaster of events to an ending which may surprise some readers. The novel is a good read, one which doesn't take a great deal of time or make particular demands of the reader. Like an exciting movie, it sweeps readers up and carries them on the dual waves of action and suspense.

      That said, I would like to have seen supporting characters with a little more substance. Isobel, of course, has to fit in at a new school, and the clique which rules the school is, stereotypically, comprised of the cheerleaders. Isobel's experience with the group is funny and challenging, but the girls' personalities really provide nothing new on the "making friends at a new school" theme. Isobel's mother seems like simply a foolish woman who has such low self-esteem that she immediately falls for a man who appears to have at least moderate wealth and power. But is there more to her? Readers are never told. Likewise, stepdad Dick is simply creepy with no redeeming characteristics, and stepbrother Nate goes from being absolutely disinterested and unlikeable to becoming the love interest for Isobel. Again, rather too predictable.

      The theme of mental illness is mentioned within the book, and here, too, it seems Cook might have done more than she did. Isobel makes contact with her dad after so many years of separation and receives a poignant note in reply. However, the relationship is taken no further, and it feels like there is something missing. The fact that Isobel might also be mentally unbalanced is mentioned but only barely dealt with as she makes one visit to a psychologist in the book. On the other hand, one of the highlights of the book and its treatment of this theme is Isobel's impromptu speech in class about mental illness. Her forthrightness and honesty are admirable.

      Young adults who enjoy romance will certainly be tuned into the budding relationship between Isobel and Nate. Those who like the paranormal and suspense of a good mystery or thriller will eagerly follow Isobel's confrontations with ghosts as well as her determination to once and for all unravel the mystery surrounding the Wickham family. Isobel, herself, may seem somewhat 'unravelled' in parts of the novel, but, in the end, it is she who persists and ultimately unravels what others have simply gossiped about and accepted for years.

      Unraveling Isobel is a good, quick read which will amuse, entertain and perhaps even spook many readers. Thus, despite some shortcomings, it is well worth the time and effort.


Ann Ketcheson, who lives in Ottawa, ON, is a retired secondary school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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