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: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

I had never expected this to be “my” kind of book. I’d seen the title a million times on the shelves (virtual and otherwise) and it never appealed to me. I was expecting a sappy, melodramatic teen romance. How wrong I was!

It was actually the ad for the Netflix movie that compelled me to read this. The story line was so corky and hilarious that I knew I had to look up the book. From the first page about the Song sisters, I was hooked.

There are three sisters in all: practical, perfectionist Margot; spitfire nine-year-old Kitty; and dreamy-eyed Lara Jean, our sixteen-year-old narrator. All three sisters are in love with their next-door neighbor, Josh. But Josh is Margot’s boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend. She broke up with him because she’s leaving the country for college. And he remains off-limits to Lara Jean, even though she liked him first.

Sweet, whimsical, quirky Lara Jean is the kind of girl who wears suspenders with shorts, bakes cupcakes from scratch, and makes scrapbooks for fun. A romantic at heart, she treasures an old hatbox from her deceased mother in which she keeps love letters she’s written to every boy she’s ever had a crush on. Five in all. They are even addressed, but she’ll never send them. They’re for her eyes only.

…Until they’re not, because someone sends them. One by one, to Lara Jean’s utmost horror, each boy receives his letter and confronts her. To save face and avoid total humiliation, she becomes entangled in a harebrained “fake” relationship with cocky school stud, Peter Kavinsky. Lara Jean pretends to be his girlfriend so that her sister’s ex won’t think she still likes him, and Peter is hoping to make his ex-girlfriend jealous so that she’ll want him back. But fake dates and fake kisses start to feel a lot like real ones, and suddenly Lara Jean is in way over her head.

I loved Lara Jean. I loved the way this book was written. I loved the relationships between the sisters – it was sort of like if Stephanie Perkins had written Shanghai Girls. It goes hand-in-hand with books like Anna and the French Kiss or, to a lesser degree, Alterations by Stephanie Scott. Lara Jean and Peter’s dynamic reminded me a lot of Charlie and Micah in Chantal Gadoury’s The Songs in Our Hearts. I almost wished the author would’ve gone Poisonwood Bible on us and given us a few chapters from the other sisters’ perspectives.

This is a spectacularly-written book, which is why I only wished that the ending had been stronger. It did surprise me, but it didn’t totally commit and give me that full-circle satisfaction. I wished it could’ve stood on its own and wouldn’t require reading two additional books to get the whole romance. Lara Jean was so adorable, this book was totally on par with and even about to surpass my love for Anna and the French Kiss, until the ending just kind of fizzled and we didn’t get that pivotal John Hughes moment the whole book seemed to be leading up to. That aside, this was an engaging and laugh-out-loud hilarious read. Jenny Han’s writing style is totally enjoyable and I would pick up another one of her books anytime.

Book Review: Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen is a teen novel published in 2008. The main character is the redheaded Ruby. Keeping up with what seems to be the theme with Dessen’s main characters, Ruby’s not interested in making friends or being dependent on anyone else. The proverbial lock in the title refers to Ruby’s heart. After being abandoned by her family, she refuses to let anyone in, or give anyone the chance to help– or hurt– her. But when Social Services sends her to live with her estranged older sister, Cora, and new brother-in-law at their wealthy estate, Ruby eventually learns that she doesn’t have to live her life as a “one-woman operation.”

We meet Ruby as an antisocial pothead with no direction. Her motto is to expect the worst, and never be disappointed. But throughout the story, the reader witnesses Ruby’s transformation, as she begins to form real and meaningful relationships. This is a touching book about family, friendship, and learning to trust. There are some painful themes of child abuse running throughout. But this is also a beautiful story of two sisters. And a bittersweet love story is in the mix too, with the boy-next-door, who’s hiding his own secrets and pain, albeit with a completely different approach than Ruby’s. A solid read.

Book Review: Dear America: Cannons at Dawn, The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania 1779) by Kristiana Gregory

cannonsCannons at Dawn is the second diary of The Winter of the Red Snow‘s Abigail Stewart, and the first sequel in the “Dear America” series. The story continues not long after Abigail’s first diary ends, still in the middle of the Revolutionary War. As we learn in the opening pages, Abigail’s father, the cobbler, has joined the Patriot army and leaves for war. However, almost immediately after his parting, the Stewarts’ house burns down, causing the family, now with no place to go, to march behind the soldiers and camp near them. It is quite a new and nomadic lifestyle for these women and children, never knowing where they will be ordered to next, their lives constantly at risk, having to be prepared to pack and leave at any moment’s notice. The winter blizzards as well as the summer’s heat are cruel and fatal for the soldiers and their families, and the severe absence of food, wages, and clothing caused not only much illness but mutiny among the Patriots.

While Abigail’s first diary takes place on the homestead in Valley Forge, witnessing to– but not necessarily participating in– the soldiers’ circumstances, the sequel is very much an ‘on-the-road’ story, and this time Abigail is suffering the conditions of the soldiers first-hand. (*SPOILER WARNING*) As this book takes her from ages twelve to fifteen, it is also a more mature story, indeed following Abigail even into her own marriage and motherhood (although no marital relations are even hinted at, other than her pregnancy itself).

An enjoyable story, very different from the first, also with likable new characters, including the runaway slaves Lulu and Mazie, and Thomas, the drummer boy, as well as Abby’s love interest, Willie, one of the young soldiers. The geographical history is also commendable; the author cross-checked the lunar calendar and gave accurate dates for the blizzards, full moons, and even New England’s Day of Darkness mentioned in the book (on top of the historical events pertaining to the War themselves). The Historical Note at the end was also one of the more unique in the series as a whole, taking many tangents and recounting some side-stories rather than the usual, plain historical names and dates (most likely due to the author having already written an historical note on the Revolutionary War for the previous book).

Book Review: Dear America: Hear My Sorrow, The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker (New York City, 1909) by Deborah Hopkinson

hear-my-sorrow-2In this beautiful yet doleful tale, we follow Angela Denoto, a Sicilian-born teen at the turn-of-the-century in New York City. Although Angela is bright and the only member of her family who can read, as well as speak and write in English, her father’s physical condition requires her and her elder sister, Luisa, to work in his stead. As Angela begins her job at a shirtwaist factory, she experiences the awful, unfair, and even dangerous working conditions, including workers having to pay for their own needles and thread, their bosses prohibiting them from stopping and stretching or resting even after injury, seventy-two hour work weeks without overtime pay, dangerous fire and health hazards, and more.

Soon, Angela befriends fellow seamstress Sarah Goldstein, a “fiery” Jewish girl who is involved in the women’s labor union. Sarah soon coaxes Angela into various union activities and a strike, in order to fight for better working conditions for the women factory workers. Angela’s striking from work does not come without a high cost, however, as her family struggles without her pay. The author does a good job of describing both the miserable working conditions and the need for unionizing, as well as the girls’ and their families’ need to work to eat and survive, despite the terrible conditions. This book closes with the fatal events of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy, which, coupled with other significant deaths in this book, adds to its melancholy overtone.

A sad story devoid of really any cheer, and rather bare-bones at times in terms of character development, but poignant and emotional nonetheless.

Book Review: Dear America: I Walk in Dread, The Diary of Deliverance Trembly, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials (Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1691) by Lisa Rowe Fraustino

walkindreadOne of my favorites in the DA series, “I Walk In Dread” is more than just a diary, but an incredible story about the Salem Witch Trials, told from a very unique perspective that cannot, in my knowledge, be found among any other Salem Witch literature. There is nothing supernatural in this book, first of all, and it is clear to the reader that the cause of the ‘attacks’ are not actual witches. As the reader may glean from the narrative, and then especially afterward in the author’s notes, the strange events were most likely a product of the mixture of superstitious, zealous officials, paired with the fact that young girls–who in that place and time were the lowest rung on society’s totem pole, and were never listened to nor given any attention, value, or credit– were listened to and given credit and power to have executed those they disliked, when claiming to be under supernatural attack.

In this story, the main character, Deliverance (Liv), is an intelligent girl who lives alone with her sickly elder sister, Remembrance (Mem). Their uncle is supposed to be caring for them, but he has more or less abandoned them, so they must keep his absence and the fact that they are alone a secret. Because Liv keeps a diary and is skeptical about whether she believes in witches, her sister Mem worries for her and even suspects that Liv is a witch. Liv also visits with another literate and intelligent woman, with whom she reads the Bible and other Puritan literature, and because this woman is one of the few who does not believe in witches and sees through the mass hysteria of the other villagers, she is persecuted and imprisoned.
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Among the memorable scenes are when some of the girls participate in using a “venus glass,” which is when a girl breaks an egg into a glass of pure water and discerns the shape the yolk takes in the water to predict whom she will marry. This was considered a forbidden practice of divination/witchcraft to the Puritans. There is also an unforgettable scene where Liv and Mem fight tooth and nail over Liv’s diary, and when Liv finally exclaims, “No, I do not believe in witches anymore! Why would the Devil need the magic of witches to do his work when he has plenty of stupid people to do it for him?” Also memorable are the men who stop by their house and who eventually marry into their family. A great book with the series’ best protagonist.

Book Review: Dear America: Love Thy Neighbor, The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson (Greenmarsh, Massachusetts 1774) by Ann Turner

lovethyIn this unique DA diary, the author tells the Revolutionary War era story from a Tory’s point of view; that is, from the point of view of a girl and her family who did not want to secede from England and were perfectly happy living under the King’s reign. These people are often viewed as traitors to the American cause, but in fact made up a fair part of the colonists, and were mostly good, average people just like anyone else. Because they did not support efforts for freedom, however, they were often attacked, vilified, and harassed by their own neighbors with whom they’d once been friends. Such is Prudence Emerson’s story.

Eventually, Prudence and her family are chased from their home and must relocate to live with their aunt, uncle, and cousins further north, where her cousin develops a romantic attachment to one of the British soldiers stationed there. Very memorable is the fact that the celebrating of Christmas was outlawed at the time, but that the family put up a decorative Christmas star to help encourage Prudence’s sickly, blind younger sister, Kate, who was the darling of this story. A very well-written book and one of my favorites in the series.

Book Review: Dear America: Survival in the Storm, The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards (Dalhart, Texas 1935) by Katelan Janke

survivalThis is a wonderful DA diary taking place during the Great Depression in the Texas Panhandle. At this time, those who lived in the prairies were hit for several years by terrible drought and dust storms (caused by farmers’ improper treatment of topsoil coupled with strong winds and a severe drought) that nearly ruined the land and peoples’ homes and ways of life. Grace, our 12 year old narrator, is a mature and hardworking young girl who, with her scatterbrained and imaginative 7 year old sister Ruth, make for memorable characters.

I had never heard of the “Dust Bowl” before reading this book, and I certainly learned a lot. In the end, I was positively floored that this book was written by a fifteen year old. Katelan Janke had won a “write your own Dear America novel” contest. Once again, I was floored, as this is one of the better-written books in the series. A great read.

Book Review: Dear America: Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild (California Territory, 1849) by Kristiana Gregory

seeds-of-hopeSusanna, her parents, and her sister set sail from the U.S. east coast to the west in hopes to reunite with family in Oregon. However, on their voyage, their mother is taken by the sea when a giant wave sweeps upon deck. Susanna, her father, and sister are devastated by their loss, but must continue on. When they finally make it to the coast, the girls’ father, a doctor, decides to stay in California awhile in this midst of the gold rush, in hopes of trying out the rugged lifestyle and striking gold. The girls must adjust to life in a rather crude and makeshift town in a land without law, which is full of rough men and criminals. Memorable scenes include an invasion from a bear, and the injured boy whose life is saved by Susanna and her father, and whom Susanna grows to love. This book is educational and well-written.