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 Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

As a lifelong lover of “Clue” (both the movie and the board game) and, more recently, a big fan of Knives Out, I was surprised I’d never heard of a little 1978 Newbery Medal winner called The Westing Game. I downloaded it on my Kindle and couldn’t stop reading until the end.

The Westing Game follows a colorful cast of characters, all of whom live in a beautiful apartment complex overlooking Lake Michigan, called Sunset Towers. The building overlooks the mansion of a self-made millionaire named Sam Westing. When Westing is (supposedly) found dead at the beginning of the book, the 16 tenants of Sunset Towers are surprised to learn they’ve been named as his heirs. Westing’s will arranges the heirs into 8 teams of 2 who receive $10K cash and a nonsensical set of clues to a mystery they must solve. Whoever solves the mystery first inherits Westing’s entire $200 million fortune and all his assets, including his company.

The heirs competing to solve the clues are a diverse cast of characters ranging in different age groups, ethnicities, income levels and personalities. I found the scenes with the unintentionally bigoted Grace Wexler–a ’70s era “Karen”, if you will–partnered with the cynical Chinese restaurant owner, Mr. Hoo, particularly amusing. There’s also an endearing pair of Greek teen brothers, one in a wheelchair with a sort of palsy; a funny old doorman, a motherly dressmaker, a prestigious Black female judge, two young sisters who are polar opposites, among others. At the heart of the book was how each character started out flawed but changed for the better as a result of their partnership with the other heirs and the experience of the Westing Game. Watching so many unique personalities bouncing off each other was also highly entertaining.

If I have one complaint about the book, it’s the ending. Everything wrapped up too neatly and a the perfect happily-ever-after for every single character didn’t feel realistic or consistent with the overall quirky, at times shadowy, nature of the story. I was let down by the conclusion, but enjoyed the reading experience overall.

Book Review: What I Saw and How I Lied (*National Book Award Winner) by Judy Blundell

Title: What I Saw and How I Lied
Author: Judy Blundell
Genre: YA Fiction
Page Count: 300 pages
Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: February 1, 2010

Publisher’s Summary: National Book Award Winner | When Evie’s father returned home from World War II, the family fell back into its normal life pretty quickly. But Joe Spooner brought more back with him than just good war stories. When movie-star handsome Peter Coleridge, a young ex-GI who served in Joe’s company in postwar Austria, shows up, Evie is suddenly caught in a complicated web of lies that she only slowly recognizes. She finds herself falling for Peter, ignoring the secrets that surround him . . . until a tragedy occurs that shatters her family and breaks her life in two.

My Thoughts: I’m going to be honest: I stayed up all night to read this book. Totally threw away any chance at feeling normal and having any energy left the next day. And was it worth it? Heck yes. I even used the last hour the babysitter was here, when I got done with my work earlier than expected, to finish the book. Again, worth it. This is simply a fantastically-written YA noir mystery, full of lust, lies, murder and betrayal…but oh, so subtly, with all the right hints hidden in all the right, tight spaces. I don’t know how the author did it. Noir? In a novel? YA-style? You betcha.

This historical YA book was delicious. The writing was hypnotic. I actually felt like I was watching a black-and-white movie full of Old Hollywood secrets and glamor. It even gave me that same creepy feeling as reading & watching the original “Lolita”. I felt all of Evie’s emotions along with her: her swooning, if not misguided, first love; the burn of betrayal; the guilt and shame of her mistakes, the earnestness in her heart, the pressures of her family and all of their dark drama.  I can’t wait to see what else this incredibly gifted author has written.

Book Review: Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor by Ally Carter

Title: Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor
Author: Ally Carter
Genre: MG Mystery
Page Count: 336 pages
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 3, 2020

Publisher’s Summary: April didn’t mean to start the fire. She wasn’t the one who broke the vase. April didn’t ask to go live in a big, creepy mansion with a bunch of orphans who just don’t understand that April isn’t like them. After all, April’s mother is coming back for her someday very soon.

All April has to do is find the clues her mother left inside the massive mansion. But Winterborne House is hiding more than one secret, so April and her friends are going to have to work together to unravel the riddle of a missing heir, a creepy legend, and a mysterious key before the only home they’ve ever known is lost to them forever.

My Thoughts: April is an orphan with nothing but a mysterious key and the sadly misguided conviction that the mother who abandoned her long ago intends to eventually come back for her. When April accidentally sets a museum on fire trying to find the lock for her key, she’s sent to live with her new foster family at the Winterborne mansion. There she learns the mystery of the missing heir, Gabriel Winterborne, and begins to wonder if the old mansion is haunted. April makes new friends – and enemies – at the Winterborne House, all the while driven by her determination to find the key to her mother’s lock.  

Winterborne Home… is classic Ally Carter, complete with a team of kids with extreme skills, witty writing, mystery, high-stakes danger and adventure. I was unhappy, though, that it ended on a cliffhanger without solving one of the story’s central mysteries. I hope not too much time passes before the release of Book 2.  

Book Review: The Sign of Four (Sherlock Holmes #2) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

After having very much enjoyed listening to A Study in Scarlet on audio last year, I was looking forward to continuing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes adventures. I was a bit taken aback when the book opens with a rather alarming scene of Holmes shooting up cocaine. Watson protests the practice, but it’s odd to learn Sherlock Holmes was a junkie.

This audio book didn’t grip me the way the first book did. Stephen Fry did a wonderful job at the narration, but I found the romance developing between Dr. Watson and Mary Morstan to be tiresome, and the solving of the subsequent murder mystery was tainted for me personally by racist passages describing Indians and one particular man from the Andaman Islands. I recognize this is a reflection of the era Doyle lived and was writing in, but nowadays, comparing brown or black people to animals and monkeys is dehumanizing and disturbingly racist.

I do plan on continuing the series, however, to give it a chance to redeem itself. A Study in Scarlet, along with the shorter stories I remember reading in grade school, were enjoyable enough that I’m willing to give Holmes another shot.

Editor’s Review: Foretold (Book 3 of the Near Deaths Series) by Holly M. Campbell

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*Full disclosure: I was the editor of this novel for 48fourteen Publishing.

Foretold (48fourteen, 2018) by Holly M. Campbell is the third – and final? – book in the Near Deaths Series. As a mega-fan of Mrs. Campbell’s previous works, including Foreshadowed (Book 1), Forewarned (Book 2), and Without Curtains, I was beyond honored to be approached by 48fourteen Publishing to edit her newest novel.

Foretold is every bit as compelling, gripping, and heart-stopping as its predecessors. The story of the teen mind-reader, Hope; her death-seeing boyfriend, Lance; and their quest to uncover the identity of a serial rapist/murderer in their small western town comes to its apex in this grand finale to complete the trilogy. Just like the first two books, the story is equal parts teen paranormal romance and murder mystery/suspense. Even the supernatural elements feel believable and realistic, keeping me on the edge of my seat as if it could all truly be happening.

The narrative takes a somewhat heavier turn as Hope grapples with guilt and grief after a sudden and devastating turn of events at the end of Book 2 (no spoilers! My lips – er, fingers – are sealed). Yet, the plot manages to stay fast-paced and unputdownable, aided along especially by intriguing characters from previous books who return with larger roles, the emergence of important new characters, and even one particular character turnaround that nearly stole the show for me. The banding together of the psychic Near Deaths vigilantes and Hope’s final battle against the villain in the third act of this book blew me away. Make no mistake, this is a masterful series executed by a master writer.

Punchy, suspenseful, heartfelt, dangerous, and at times humorous while deliciously dark, Foretold was the perfect ending to Campbell’s memorable and highly recommended paranormal suspense trilogy.

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.

Editor’s Review: Nocturnal Meetings of the Misplaced by R.J. Garcia

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*I was the editor of this novel for The Parliament House Press.

Nocturnal Meetings of the Mispalced (The Parliament House Press, 2018) by R.J. Garcia is my favorite book I’ve edited to date – and one of my all-time favorite novels ever. This unputdownable debut blends my favorite elements of YA, horror/mystery, small towns, a group of friends, and a creepy, but at times also humorous and romantic, Stranger Things vibe to create one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

The story is told from the POV of Tommy Walker, a fifteen-year-old boy whose mom has a drug problem and can no longer care for him and his little sister. They’re sent to live with a kind, young uncle and aunt they’ve never met before in the small town of Summertime, Indiana. There, Tommy befriends his neighbor, Finn – a lovable, geeky, and incredibly brave Ron Weasley-esque boy, who was easily my favorite character. Finn’s stepdad is a flawed and abusive man…and he’s also the town sheriff.

Tommy begins meeting up with Finn and Finn’s friends, two girls named Silence and Annie, at late-night meetings in the woods. However, these meetings quickly turn from lighthearted to sinister, as the misfit group begins to unravel clues to a cold case local murder and kidnapping that had happened decades ago. No one believes them, but the kids are in danger. And Summertime holds darker and more personal secrets than Tommy ever could’ve imagined.

I honestly can’t praise this book enough. It’s a haunting and phenomenal story, with unforgettable characters – even the side ones – that I still think of from time to time. If you’re looking for a solid read with an empathetic, young male lead, a small-town murder mystery, deadly secrets, complex characters, and a hint of humor and touching YA romance, you need to add Nocturnal Meetings of the Misplaced to your TBR, like, yesterday.

Book Review: Origin (Robert Langdon #5) by Dan Brown

origin

Origin (Penguin Random House, October 2017) is the latest installment of the Robert Langdon series by Dan Brown, following bestsellers Angels & Demons, The DaVinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Inferno. However, the books can more or less be read out of order, as each adventure is separate and none really build upon the others or upon Robert Langdon’s character.

Origin is a fast-paced techno-thriller starring our favorite Harvard symbology professor, Robert Langdon (who’s described in previous books as looking like Harrison Ford, but I just picture Tom Hanks from the films), this time on a dangerous escapade across Spain. (At this point, after 18 years, I’m hoping Brown will branch out of Western Europe and finally give us an installment someplace else – China? Africa? South America? Russia? The Middle East…? There; I just tweeted him about it.) However, I use the term “starring” loosely, as this is really a story about one of Robert’s former students, a fictional Mark Zuckerberg/Steve Jobs/Elon Musk-esque tech mogul genius named Edmond Kirsch, who has just made a groundbreaking discovery about the origin of life, and the direction in which humanity is headed.

The pros about the books are, as usual with Brown’s novels, its un-put-down-able readablity, fun and intellectual banter between science vs. religion, and fast-moving plot that makes you feel like you’re watching a movie rather than reading a book. I LOVE THAT, and I love the tech, science, and ideas swimming through this novel, which are presented in a very accessible way. One of the joys of reading Brown – particularly his Robert Langdon series – is the fact that you will not only be entertained but will learn about art, history, literature, real secret societies, religion, philosophy, symbols, and more. But it’s not just a love letter to the humanities – just like his previous books, it contains the cutting-edge tech & science of the day.

However, although it’s a fast ride that kept me invested till the last page, be forewarned that the “big reveal,” when it finally comes, is anticlimactic, and many aspects of the plot (the identity of “The Regent,” who’s behind the assassination and why, etc.) is predictable from miles away. Kirsch’s “major” revelation – which is, of course, saved for the final chapters – is nothing groundbreaking that we haven’t heard from Stephen Hawking or Elon Musk already, or from various popular TED Talks. Sadly, I didn’t feel the theories proposed fulfilled Kirsch’s bold promise of debunking the world’s religions. (If anything, even if we understood how the laws of nature created life, the question remains…who, or what, created the laws of nature? And why?) Sorry if this is a little spoilery, but it’s important that, if you’re going to read this book, just read it to go along for the ride, but don’t expect anything earth-shattering in the end, even though that’s what’s promised throughout the book. This will save you the disappointment.

Lastly, I want to mention I enjoyed the Artificial Intelligence character of Winston; he reminded me of Jarvis from the Iron Man and Avengers movies (indeed, that’s whose voice I heard in my head when I read him). Although some writers may feel having a genius AI computer is kind of a cop-out method to provide otherwise impossible escapes, connections, and exposition, Winston’s character is actually one of the most – if not *the* most – significant parts of the overall plot and message. And, I find, his role opens up an even more fascinating discourse on human technology and ethics than any of the ‘religion vs. science’ discourses this story presents.

I recommend Origin to anyone who enjoyed the previous Robert Langdon books; those interested in the future of science, humanism, or the Singularity; or to someone looking for a fast/light techno-thriller with a philosophical edge.