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.

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

foretold

*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: Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter

Not If I Save You First (2018) is a standalone teen thriller/romance by popular NYT bestselling YA author, Ally Carter. As a colossal fan of her Heist Society and Embassy Row series, I was excited about her latest release in the same vein as her previous works, involving U.S. Secret Service agents, the President’s son, and an Alaskan adventure. Fun!

This was a quick read. It’s light, entertaining, and feels like watching a movie – and those are compliments. It’s commercial fiction; I expect it to be that way. If we learn anything, it’s about Alaska and off-grid living. Not as technologically exciting as Heist Society or politically intriguing as Embassy Row, but I’ll take it.

The story is about a sixteen-year-old girl named Maddie Manchester, whose father used to be the U.S. President’s Secret Service body guard. Maddie was best friends with the President’s son, Logan, but after a highly dangerous incident at the White House, her father moved her to an off-grid cabin in Alaska, where her life has been survival in the wilderness the last six years. For the first two years of her curious exile, Maddie wrote Logan every day, but he never wrote back. The loss of her best and only friend devastated Maddie. So when Logan reappears in her life, being sent to stay with Maddie and her father in Alaska as a sort of wilderness rehabilitation for bad behavior, Maddie is furious with him. All of that is short-lived, though, when Logan is suddenly kidnapped by a young Russian man the next day. Now Maddie, with the home court advantage, will stop at nothing to rescue Logan.

My fondness for the author personally and her other works aside, I found this book somewhat lacking. Maybe because it wasn’t part of a trilogy or series, but it felt like we didn’t get to know the characters that well. We got to know their cutouts, but not who they truly are. Logan is supposed to be lovable troublemaker yet genius with a photographic memory, yet we don’t see a whole lot of his skills showcased and we never get a good reason out of him why he never replied to Maddie’s letters and broke her heart. As for Maddie, I felt that the author was pushing the girly-girl stuff way too hard. It didn’t feel organic. I think she may have been trying to distinguish Maddie apart from her other heroines – like Kat from Heist Society or Grace from Embassy Row, neither of whom are super feminine or into girly things, because it totally worked for their characters. Maddie worrying about her skin, hair, fashion, and nails in the middle of life-or-death situations – especially when she’s otherwise wielding axes and knives and guns and knows how to rough it in the wilderness – felt forced. Because I had trouble buying the characters individually, I couldn’t buy them together romantically either. But maybe I’m just old.

The writing is easy to go along with, action-oriented, well executed. The plot is fast-paced and constantly churning, although not as clever or as intricate as the aforementioned Embassy Row or Heist Society series. I thought that what the kidnapper did to Maddie in cold blood was despicable, so in my eyes he was irredeemable regardless of the motive.

At the end of the day, I have mixed feelings about Not If I Save You First. It wasn’t her best, but was still an entertaining ride and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it. I love when I find a book I can’t put down, and despite some of its shortcomings, this was one of those books. I look forward to Ally Carter’s next release.

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: 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: Uncommon Criminals (Heist Society #2) by Ally Carter

Kat and the team are back in Uncommon Criminals (Disney-Hyperion 2011), the second installment of Ally Carter’s Heist Society series. Now that Kat has established her line of thievery as a noble “Robin Hood” sort, she can’t resist when a kind, elderly lady approaches her, begging Kat to right a decades-old wrong.

Constance Miller beseeches Kat to find and steal back an ancient gem, called the Cleopatra emerald, which Constance claims her parents rightfully discovered as archaeologists, but was stolen by their conniving young assistant. Kat rounds up the team – the handsome, wealthy outsider, W. W. Hale the fifth; her gorgeous and talented cousin, Gabrielle; computer genius Simon, and the notorious Bagshaw brothers, with all their British bulk and banter, to successfully steal the Cleopatra emerald and replace it with their uncle’s forgery. However, this is only where the story begins.

Legend has it, the ancient stone is cursed. And Kat’s willing to believe it when she realizes she’s been conned. The old woman wasn’t the real Constance Miller, but a thief named Margaret, who once knew – and conned – her uncles. Margaret intends to pass off the Cleopatra emerald as its long-lost twin gem, the Antony emerald, and sell it to the highest bidder…but not if Kat has anything to say about it. Despite her wounded ego and the deep-seated fear that she is destined to become like Margaret someday, Kat rounds up her teen team once more to fix her egregious mistake.

This book was even better than the first! The plot was more complex, the new characters more ambiguous and interesting, and I loved the angle of ancient Egyptian artifacts. I am also now beginning to  see why Carter wrote this series in third person instead of first, since certain scenes are told by Interpol or the bad guys’ POV, like a Dan Brown novel, which works for this genre. I was also happy with the return of Nick and his mother who works for Interpol; I find them fascinating characters and I like the tension they add to the story.

The only thing I wished – which I learned after finishing Book 1 – was that the paintings and artifacts named in these books were real. I would’ve loved to learn some art history, or if the author could’ve used a real stone, like the Hope Diamond. However, the artists (such as Monet) and historical figures (Antony & Cleopatra) are of course real, and I do love the lore Carter created about the twin emeralds. I was fascinated to begin to see Kat’s seams and weaknesses in this installment. I seriously cannot wait to see what Book 3 holds in store!

Book Review: Take the Key and Lock Her Up (Embassy Row #3) by Ally Carter

I don’t want to be a princess. I don’t want the spotlight and the chaos and the duty. But more than that, I want the people I love to be safe, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen.” – 52%

Take the Key and Lock Her Up (2016) is the third installment in Ally Carter’s Embassy Row series, following All Fall Down and See How They Run. Once more, we plunge into the disturbed mind of teenage Grace Blakely in this fast-paced, nonstop international action/thriller for young adults.

Grace and her brother, Jamie, have just learned a centuries-old secret about their true heritage, which threatens the royal family of Adria, the secret women’s Society their mother once belonged to, and possibly the peace in Europe. With Grace’s Russian love interest, the stoic Alexei, the youths and their protector are on the run for their lives. Jamie has been seriously injured, and Grace fears the worst for her brother if he doesn’t seek medical help. Desperate to keep him alive, Grace throws herself to the wolves, only to be met with an impossible compromise.

This whole Embassy Row series really is excellent, and the third and final book pulled out all the stops. Everything major connected nicely in the grand finale, which was truly a nail-biter. I liked the whole ‘nursery rhyme’ theme running through the series and how the rhyme held centuries-old answers. I also enjoyed that these books have a cast of characters full of brave, bright and powerful women. Take the Key and Lock Her Up has everything from our hard-edged, not-your-ordinary narrator, action, international intrigue and  a dash of romance, to high-stakes danger, fictional but fun history, and royal secrets. If you like the idea of an action series for teens with a darker twist on The Selection, mixed with the history of Anastasia Romanov, then these are the books for you! Five stars to a trilogy well-done. I’d love to read more.

Memorable Quotes

“There are few things in the world scarier than the unknown.” – 7%

“Maybe I should set Valancia on fire—burn the whole world down. Maybe then I could stop running.” – 52%

“I look at the old-fashioned key that still lies in the palm of the king’s large hand. It doesn’t look like it should hold any power at all. But once upon a time it changed the world.” – 76%

“…what’s going to haunt me more in the future—memories or regrets?” – 85%

“I know how the human mind can be—how it’s both wonderfully strong and terribly frail, and how, if necessary, a person can rewrite history, even if only for themselves.” – 94%

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.