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: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Genre: Adult Fiction, Women’s Fiction
Page Count: 379 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date: August 14, 2018

Publisher’s Summary: For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

My Thoughts: I haven’t read regular adult fiction (as opposed to YA or MG) probably since I was in high school—ironically—so I can’t say what really compelled me to download this book, other than the fact I kept seeing it everywhere, and I was in a brooding mood seeking a more serious read. Where the Crawdads Sing is the story of Kya, the “Marsh Girl” who lives alone in the marshes of North Carolina. The author’s expertise on birds and wildlife really shines through this well-written coming-of-age novel, wherein the marsh itself takes on a character of its own. We oscillate between time periods, from Kya’s childhood and coming-of-age, her lovers and losses, and a murder mystery the narrative is leading up to. The third act admittedly dropped me a little by unexpectedly turning into a court drama—I thought I was reading something like Sue Monk Kidd and then it turned into To Kill A Mockingbird—but I appreciate the versatility of the novel. That kept it from becoming one-note.

I really liked Kya and her story. And I’ll confess, the ending put a big, fat Cheshire cat-like smile on my face. I recommend this book to fans of lyrical adult contemporary fiction, environmentalism, and women’s fiction.

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.

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

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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.

Book Review: Haunting the Deep by Adriana Mather

‘Someone or multiple someones are intentionally rewriting history,’ Alice says. 
‘And keeping the Titanic stuck in time before its sinking,’ Susannah says.” – p. 249

Haunting the Deep (Knopf, 2017) is the sequel to How to Hang a Witch by #1 NYT bestselling YA author, Adriana Mather. In Mather’s second YA paranormal thriller, we pick up six months after the ending of How to Hang a Witch. It’s spring time, and Samantha Mather has been avoiding magic and the Descendants of the Salem witches, ever since they were all almost hanged to death.

…they’re descended from the accused Salem witches and I’m descended from the stodgy Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, who hanged them.” – p. 6

But the Descendants need Sam as part of their circle now, especially since Alice and Susannah have been receiving psychic warnings about something bad about to happen in Salem – again. This time, it accompanies Salem High’s upcoming Spring Fling dance, which is Titanic-themed. At the same time, and perhaps not coincidentally, Sam begins receiving mysterious packages by a long-dead relative who survived the sinking of the Titanic. When she touches the enchanted objects, she is transported to a strange alternate replica of the ship on the days before it sank, where the doomed passengers are all enjoying themselves, and Sam herself begins to forget who she really is.  Only when Alice points out that these enchantments not only endanger Sam but other people does Sam finally agree to join their circle and embrace her magical gifts to help save the day once more.

The best part about this book, in my opinion, is that we got way more of the teen witches: Alice, Mary, and Susannah. I felt they were a bit underutilized in the previous book, so I was delighted this book centered more on them and their coven sisterhood with Sam. We also finally get to meet Sam’s father, and Jaxon’s character takes a backseat to some strange magic while we have the return of the seventeenth-century spirit whom Sam’s in love with, Elijah. But the second-best part about the book are the enchanted objects and the creepy revisits to the Titanic, where Sam plays the role of an Edwardian young lady courting a young man. IMO, Mather should really try her hand at writing full historical fiction (with paranormal elements, of course), as the historical scenes were thoroughly engaging and – dare I say? – even better written than the contemporary ones.

I adore how Mather gave a voice to the immigrants and third-class passengers who didn’t survive the ship’s tragic fate. Also, I love the way she wrote their Irish accents; I could hear them so clearly in my head. The idea of putting on a dress and being transported into another iconic time and place is such a fascinating concept to me; I could read a whole series about that alone. Given everything I loved about it, there were a few things I would’ve wanted a deeper explanation for. Namely, it wasn’t entirely clear why the perpetrator (not spoiling who!) wanted Sam to stay on the Titanic with them. I get why they needed her to summon someone else (again, no spoilers), but why try to keep Sam there, deluded, on the ship forever too? That part didn’t seem to be explained. But maybe it was and I was just reading too fast because I was too excited to see what would happen next.

Above all, the world-building in this series so far has made me a fan. The many ways spells can work in this world, such as through potions, writing, ritual, or enchanted artifacts, keeps the stories creative and fresh. I really hope Adriana Mather is working on a third book in this series, as I can’t wait to see where she’ll transport us next. I’ll be the first in line to go with her!

Watch the awesome book trailer

Memorable Quotes

“‘…stop judging magic and get over yourself.‘” – Alice, p. 43

‘You’re not allowed to try to fix me. I’m not broken.’” – Sam, p. 234

I’m here worrying about having to go to the Titanic as a first-class passenger with tea and parasols; meanwhile, some of those passengers have probably been locked in steerage for the better part of a century.” – p. 242

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!

Book Review: See How They Run (Embassy Row #2) by Ally Carter

“I am the villain of my own story.” – p. 120

See How They Run (Scholastic 2015) is the second book in Ally Carter’s Embassy Row series. I very much enjoyed the first novel, All Fall Down, and was eager to continue the series. The sequel did not disappoint.

We begin with our anti-heroine, Grace, who is more unhinged than ever, after having learned the awful truth about how her mother really died. About 25% into this book, I was actually considering quitting because Grace was becoming rather too angsty, and then a pair of boys literally fist-fighting over her seemed to take things over the top…until one of those boys winds up dead the next morning, causing a juicy international chaos that sucked me right back in.

Just like the first book, the story is action-packed as Grace pulls out all the stops to save her crush, the Russian boy-next-door Alexei, from a wrongful accusation of murder. I would’ve liked to see more of Grace’s other friends in this story – the Hebrew/Portuguese twins Noah and Lila, Rosie the German gymnast, and Megan the computer genius – as I feel their potential in the Embassy Row series has been thus far underutilized. But we got to meet Jamie, Grace’s older brother, about whom we heard so much in Book 1. The sequel ends without quite solving the mystery of who wants Alexei and Grace’s family dead, but with a major reveal that evokes modern 20th century legend surrounding the Romanovs of Russia (in particular, Anastasia). Another quick, easy, and non-stop read from Ally Carter, and I am eagerly awaiting the third book’s release in December.

Book Review: All Fall Down (Embassy Row #1) by Ally Carter

“I am the Girl Who Cried Wolf. And now I am the only one who can save the lambs.” – p. 291

All Fall Down (Scholastic, 2015) by Ally Carter is a YA political thriller and the first book in the Embassy Row series. From the first page, I was intrigued by the character of Grace Blakely, sixteen-year-old army brat and granddaughter of the U.S. ambassador to a fictional European country, called Adria.

Right off the bat, we know that Grace is no “girly” girl. She jumps fences, climbs walls, fights like a man and can run a military obstacle course in her sleep. Three years ago, Grace witnessed her beloved mother die in what everyone says was a tragic accident. But Grace knows it was murder. She witnessed it, saw the murderer. Only, no one believes Grace. Her family and the police think the trauma of watching her mother die has made her crazy. Now Grace is back in her grandfather’s home on Embassy Row in Adria, staying in her mother’s childhood room, which feels more to her like a shrine. Visions and flashbacks of her mother haunt Grace around every corner, making the reader wonder if the teen really is delusional…until she comes face-to-face with who she knows is the killer.

Together with a team of skilled, genius and lovable teens on Embassy Row who want to help, Grace is determined to catch the suspect and bring him to justice before he kills again. This book was non-stop fun, action and suspense. The only thing I found myself wishing was that it didn’t take place in a fictional country, because it would’ve been even more fascinating if the author was educating the reader about a real place, even if embellished, in the style of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books. However, as I’m now a few chapters into the sequel already, I’m beginning to understand more of why a fictional country was necessary.

Overall, I found this a highly enjoyable and fast read. The end truly took me by surprise – I was not expecting it. If you like a fast-paced political thriller with plenty of fiction, teen suspense, a tiny dash of potential romance, and an unconventional, unreliable narrator, All Fall Down is a great choice.