Book Review: The Twin by Natasha Preston

*This review contains some mild, non-specific spoilers.

The Twin by Natasha Preston is a dark teen novel published in March 2020. My local Barnes & Noble in Shelby Twp, Michigan had signed copies sitting out on a table in the YA section, and the opening pages intrigued me, so I purchased it. With the creepy-twin trope, I thought I was getting a Similars/Pretenders type of deal, maybe with a touch of Without Curtains, because the cool, easy writing style reminded me of Holly M. Campbell. But readers should beware: This story does NOT end happily for our heroine.

Now, I’m all about not spoiling, but I do think readers should know what genre they’re reading — especially if, like in my case, they think they’ll be reading one type of book when it’s not that. Admittedly, I was expecting a run-of-the-mill YA suspense/thriller, in which the heroine must solve the puzzle, then put in the fight of her life to emerge victorious. The Twin is not that story. It’s a horror tragedy. So, respecting it for the genre it is, I’m not going to complain about the ending. I’m just defining the genre so that readers know what to expect.

The Twin is the haunting tale of Ivy and Iris, two estranged, sixteen-year-old twin sisters. In a Parent Trap type of way, Mom took one twin and Dad took the other when they divorced. Now, they’re brought back together upon the mysterious death of their mother. Right off, Mom’s death sounds sketchy and I suspected foul play. Ivy, the narrator, is trying to adjust to the death of her mother, and to her twin sister moving in with her and their dad. She otherwise had a good life going for her: straight-A student, fastest swimmer on the team, a great boyfriend who plays football, a tight-knit trio of BFFs. The only issues Ivy suffers from is general anxiety and overthinking, traits I found to be very relatable and refreshing.

Meanwhile, her twin, Iris, is clearly a sociopath. It’s obvious from the get-go in her behavior that she isn’t even mourning their mom, but Ivy keeps trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. “Everyone grieves differently,” as they say. But then Iris starts to cross boundaries to make Ivy’s life a living hell. One by one, Iris subtly manipulates Ivy’s friends, teachers, and father against Ivy. When Ivy begins to realize what’s happening, it’s too late because Iris keeps gaslighting her and causing everyone else to question Ivy’s sanity.

The story is overall a chilling, addicting, and well-written read. My only quibble with the writing itself is that the characters say they’re American, but the editor forgot to change out some of the author’ British English. (E.g. I caught many instances of “footpath” instead of sidewalk, referring to a public restroom as “the toilet,” phrasing such as “on the phone to” instead of “on the phone with,” and other details that didn’t sound authentic coming from a supposedly American narrator.) I also think the book could’ve stood to have an actual, defined setting — the author never names where the story takes place, just says ‘the country’ and ‘the city’ — and that, too, took me out of the narrative, because a well-researched setting should be like another character in the book. It just seemed like a missed opportunity to add a layer of atmosphere, make the story feel more real to the reader, and set the tone overall. These may be aspects, however, that only a writer would notice or mind.

For anyone who enjoys teen YA blended with a solid, unraveling suspense and doesn’t mind dark outcomes, The Twin is an intriguing page-turner for a lazy afternoon. I would read more by this author.

Book Review: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender

Title: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall
Author: Katie Alender
Genre: YA Horror/Suspense
Page Count: 336 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Point
Release Date: August 30, 2016

Publisher’s Summary: Delia’s new house isn’t just a house. Long ago, it was the Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females — an insane asylum nicknamed “Hysteria Hall.” However, many of the inmates were not insane, just defiant and strong willed. Kind of like Delia herself. But the house still wants to keep “troubled” girls locked away. So, in the most horrifying way, Delia becomes trapped. And that’s when she learns that the house is also haunted.

Ghost girls wander the hallways in their old-fashioned nightgowns. A handsome ghost boy named Theo roams the grounds. Delia learns that all the spirits are unsettled and full of dark secrets. The house, too, harbors shocking truths within its walls — truths that only Delia can uncover, and that may set her free. And she’ll need to act quickly — before the house’s power overtakes everything she loves. Katie Alender brings heart-pounding suspense, gorgeous writing, and a feminist twist to this tale of memories and madness.

My Thoughts: Everything about this book made me scream YES! From the feminist angle on Victorian attitudes toward “hysterical women” to the flawed MC to the dynamic, multi-layered world-building and intriguing mysteries, twists, and turns pulling me along every page, I was completely entranced by this book from sentence 1. I found The Dead Girls… by googling “YA ghost novels” when I was in the mood for a good ghost story. But what I got from this was SO much more than that. It’s a novel with heart, with emotional resonance, and protagonist who learns and changes–even after she dies.

The intricate afterlife world-building and the physics of how being a ghost works in the time/space continuum had me fascinated. Every detail the author wrote, every passage, contained some further meaning, a purpose, a clue that comes into play later on. It all culminated into a multi-climaxed, beautiful message about life, love, redemption, and our place in the mysterious plan of it all. Characters aren’t always who we expect them to be, surprises lurk around every corner, and the MC, Delia, is always driven by some goal or another that kept me hooked. Yes, the paranormal goings-on were creepy, and so were the ghosts, but they were also people. Souls, with their own personalities and backstories. I grew to care about all of them.

Despite the cover’s bloodied appearance, this is not a gross or gory book, nor is it gratuitously violent. It is, rather, a poignant interpretation of life after death and a soul’s purpose. The end moved me to tears and gave me hope. I think this novel is perfectly brilliant and I gladly add it to my hall-of-fame of all-time favorites.

Book Review: Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1) by Jeff VanderMeer

annihilation

I’m so glad I came upon the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Annihilation (FSG, 2014) is exactly the book I needed on this lazy, cold spring weekend. I read the whole thing in a day, and immediately purchased book #2 on my Kindle the instant I was finished. I plan to devour this series.

If I have one word to describe Annihilation, it is ineffable. Perhaps I don’t read a lot of sci-fi horror, but I’ve never read anything like this book. It captures the deep and dreadful mystery of what it means to be alive. It plays with your mind. The reader can’t be sure whether to trust the narrator, and the indescribable mystery of what the hell is going on in Area X keeps the pages turning and turning.

Our narrator is a nameless biologist who volunteers for a government mission to explore an otherworldly, uncharted wilderness, simply called Area X. Rational thought begins to leave her as she examines the strange new organisms in the land that can’t be defined or classified under any science she knows. As we follow her harrowing story of survival through Area X, her own developing madness and the madness and manipulation of her comrades, more of her melancholy backstory and the horrific expeditions that came before hers float to the forefront.

“Back [in the world], I had always felt as if my work amounted to a futile attempt to save us from who we are.”

– 15%

“’You saw something that wasn’t there.’ She wasn’t going to let me off the hook. You can’t see what is there, I thought.”

– 21%

I won’t spoil anything other than to warn that all the answers aren’t clear by the end of book #1. I kept reading on in hopes for all the puzzle pieces to finally fit together in my brain, but we don’t get anything solid apart from theories. Which, in a way, is a poignant metaphor for life. Luckily, there are two more books in the series that will hopefully unravel the mystery of Area X.

“…some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answer long enough.”

– 84%

Overall, this is a skillfully written, fast-paced yet introspective, almost philosophical adventure/horror of sorts. I would highly recommend this dystopia to readers interested in preternatural science fiction, survival stories, and even monster stories – and to adult fans of The Hunger Games.

Book Review: How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

“I have to convince a group of people who hate me to help solve a curse that could be killing our families.” – p. 125

How to Hang a Witch (Knopf, 2016) is a YA paranormal novel written by Adriana Mather, an actual descendant of the Salem Witch Trials’ Cotton Mather. The protagonist in this story is Samantha Mather – a fictional descendant of Cotton’s – who has just moved from New York City into her late grandmother’s home in Salem, Massachusetts. Sam lives with her stepmother, Vivian, while her father remains in a coma for unknown reasons.

As soon as Sam arrives to Salem, the town wants her out. Especially a group of goth girls at school, known as the Descendants, who are descendants of the persecuted Salem witches. It doesn’t help that strange and awful things keep occurring to everyone who comes into contact with Sam, almost as if she’s cursing them…when, in truth, it’s likely she’s the one who’s cursed.

In quick succession, Sam meets two guys: the outgoing boy next door, Jaxon; and a seventeenth-century ghost who haunts her grandmother’s mansion, Elijah. Sam is the only one who can see Elijah, and while he wants her gone, he also begins to help her piece together Salem’s true history to uncover why she is cursed, and how to end the pattern of killings in town. I liked the love triangle created between Sam, Jaxon, and the spirit, Elijah. Something about Sam and Elijah’s relationship reminded me of Casper and Christina Ricci’s character in Casper (1995).

This fast-paced YA occult suspense was an absolute delight to read. The chapters are short and punchy; Sam’s narration is to-the-point, sympathetic, and often humorous; and Mather’s supernatural vision of Salem, as well as her fascinating and approachable portrayal of its history, jumps off the e-pages. And we can’t forget the witches in the story – Susannah, Alice, Mary, and Lizzie – who are like something straight out of Mean Girls or The Craft. If you’re a fan of fun commercial YA with some solid, spooky witchcraft, a history-seeped mystery, and a good ol’-fashioned ghost story with a positive and powerful message, you need How to Hang a Witch in your life.

Watch the amazing book trailer!

Memorable Quotes

“‘Almost everything worth believing in cannot be seen. Love, for instance.‘” – p. 106

“‘Kindly do not interrupt me,’ he says with anything but kindness. Kindly I will smack you in your perfect face.” – Sam and Elijah, p. 116

The silence between us is thick with secrets.” p. 196

It is the greatest evil of all, to separate people who love each other.” – Abigail, p. 232

“‘I’m truly sorry for all of your pain. But I’m not the cause of it anymore. You are.‘” – Cotton, p. 339

‘Nothing is going to change unless you make different choices…’” – p. 341

Netflix Review: Stranger Things Seasons 1 & 2

StrangerThis is my first TV series review on this book blog. I read far more than I watch TV, this is true. In fact, I don’t watch television at all, unless it’s late night political satire (think Colbert, Bill Maher, John Oliver), and I watch those via YouTube, so my TV is mainly for films. (I’ll admit to being a film junkie –  I’ve watched waaay more movies than I could ever review here.) When several friends and relatives of mine began recommending Netflix’s Stranger Things series to me, I decided to go for a free trial of Netflix and give the first 2 seasons a shot.

I have since watched both seasons twice and, in the last few weeks, have become an all-out obsessed fangirl. My friends say I need an intervention. So, what makes Stranger Things, in my opinion, so flippin’ amazing?

Once upon a time, the Duffer Brothers apparently had the brilliant idea to mash elements of a Steven Spielberg eighties film with child actors, the X-Men, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Alien, Dungeons & Dragons, quantum mechanics, and a frightening government conspiracy all together to create an original series that is every bit as creepy, fascinating, funny, suspenseful, disturbing, and endearing as it is entertaining. The story follows a band of lovably geeky eleven-year-old boys in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana in 1983. When one of their party, the sweet Will Byers, suddenly goes missing on the same night we, as the audience, see some kind of mysterious emergency breaking out at a nearby lab, Will’s friends and closest family will stop at nothing to find him. Will’s struggling but devoted mom, Joyce – portrayed by Winona Ryder, who completely embodies the role – solicits the help of the gruff and grieving but (IMO) smokin’ hot sheriff Chief Hopper (played by David Harbour…drool…) to find Will. Meanwhile, his friends sneak out of their homes to search the woods for him at night.

At the same time Will goes missing, a strange girl of the same age with a shaved head appears in the woods, wearing nothing but a hospital gown. Eventually, Will’s friends – Mike, the leader-type; Lucas, the skeptic and voice of reason; and Dustin, the hilariously adorable comic relief – intercept the girl, who barely speaks and whose only identifying factor is a tattoo on her wrist that says “011”. Mike decides to hide Eleven, or “El” for short, in his basement to take care of her. They soon learn El possesses incredible psychic powers. El’s appearance and Will’s disappearance are linked…the kids just have to find out how.

The characters branch out from the kids’ siblings and parents and their relationships and connections to the case, to the villainous government scientists and spies. Don’t let the ages fool you; this show definitely features some R-rated gore, violence, and horror – or at the very least, PG-13. I think it would’ve been way too scary/intense for me at age eleven; then again, every kid is different. Also, there is just as much focus, if not more at times, on the older cast members, making this a fantastic watch for older teens and adults alike.

Both seasons are equally haunting and addictive, featuring terrifying monsters, major eighties nostalgia, characters you really become attached to, super powers, a wickedly epic eighties soundtrack, a somewhat dysfunctional yet charming small Midwestern town, a creepy Twin Peaks vibe, and the perfect blend of humor, drama, horror, romance, adventure, mystery, and sci-fi to keep me utterly invested in every scene. It’s even better the second time around, because I could really appreciate and savor the writing and foreshadowing even more. The only thing that depresses me is that it’ll likely be an entire year before Season 3. Season 2 has a happy pseudo-ending, but the very last shot is a major cliffhanger, so I can’t wait to see what the Duffer Brothers have in store for us next year. Until then, I guess I’m stuck waiting in the Upside Down… Five stars from an alternate dimension to Stranger Things!