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.

DNF: Pure by Catherine Mesick

Pure by Catherine Mesick is a 2014 indie-published YA urban fantasy novel. It is Book 1 of the Pure Series by Catherine Mesick. I think I found it on BookBub and was drawn by the absolutely gorgeous cover art. Also, it was free, so that didn’t hurt! I found the opening chapters intriguing with the unique YA UF twist on Russian mythology, and I liked Katie in general as a character.

I want to start out by saying that I have tremendous respect for Mesick. Not just for finishing a series of this genre, but executing it all correctly as an indie author (no easy feat) and deciding to make the first book in her series free to initiate readers at no risk. I think that’s a brilliant strategy and I commend her for it. I also think we share the same hometown (or at least, home state) but that’s beside the point. I would love to meet her at a book conference someday and shake her hand. (Post-covid era, of course.)

I read 50% of Pure. It was an overall positive experience. I am setting it aside for the time being at the 50% mark. The writing is good and the story holds a lot of promise. My issue is mostly just pacing. This is something I struggle with personally when I get to the ‘muddy middle’ of lots of books, so it’s not necessarily a criticism of the author. That said, the author chose to answer some pressing questions prematurely (what is William, where his & Katie’s relationship is going, what is the monster, what/who is killing people in town and why) that I feel would’ve been better saved for much later in the book. I was reading to unravel these mysteries. Once all my questions were answered around midway through, I no longer felt incentivized to keep reading.

Lastly, I’m not sure if it’s a literary style or just an editing oversight, but the text contains an exorbitant amount of em-dashes that were distracting and should typically be used very sparingly.

All that aside, I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from downloading a free book, especially if they’re fans of this genre. I may decide someday to finish the book (or even the series) and go back and update this review. For now, however, I have other books on my TBR to move onto, including some library books I don’t want falling overdue. Thank you to the author for allowing us to sample her work!

Book Review: All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

All-American Muslim Girl is a 2019 YA novel by Nadine Jolie Courtney. This book was one of my random Barnes & Noble finds while perusing the shelves in the store the other day. (Don’t worry; I didn’t stay long and I had my Scholastic “I ❤ Reading!” mask on.) One fleeting glance at the blurb and a sweep through the opening page, and I knew I’d found “the one” going home with me. This book was exactly the YA #OwnVoices pre-Covid contemporary escape I needed going into the holiday season and day 14 billion of the pandemic.

Allie (short for Alia) is our 16 YO protag. She’s Circassian on her dad’s side and American on her mom’s, so she doesn’t “look” Muslim and can often “pass” as white. That, combined with the fact her dad has pretty much renounced his Muslim heritage in favor of secularism, leaves Allie feeling not quite like the basic white girl she pretends to be at school, yet also hardly fitting in with her own Muslim relatives, either. Just when Allie’s crush, Wells, starts to turn into more than just a friend, Allie feels called to start learning about her family’s faith. It doesn’t help that dating is mostly prohibited (haram) in Islam, AND that Wells’s dad is basically the Sean Hannity/Tucker Carlson/Rush Limbaugh of a conservative, Muslim-hating news outlet. Double whammy.

While the blurb and the beginning of the story might lead one to believe it will center on Wells and Allie’s forbidden Romeo-and-Juliet romance, it was a refreshing surprise to discover this book is, at heart, about faith and family. My favorite element was the friendships between the girls in Allie’s Qur’an study group and their painfully honest discussions about the complexities of Islam, patriarchy, and feminism. The reader learns alongside Allie as myths about Islam are dispelled and beautiful, uplifting aspects of the religion are showcased. Wells’s character definitely takes a backseat as more of a background supporting role while Allie tries to navigate issues of personal identity and what it means to be both a Muslim and an American at the same time. But perhaps the biggest part of the story is Allie’s parents. They’re a superclose family unit at home, constantly supporting her in the best way they know how. While Allie’s dad is miffed that she’s choosing to openly embrace the stigmatized religion he’d always tried to shield her from, we can see where he’s coming from and it makes his relationship with Allie all the more endearing.

If I have one criticism, I feel like the backstory of Wells’s parent’s could’ve stood to be more fleshed out. I would’ve liked to have seen Wells’s dad be someone other than a villain. We all know white men of a certain age who spew out racist talking points in one breath then would give you the shirt off their backs in the next. People are complicated. As much as we might disagree with someone’s politics, the real world is more nuanced than Jack Henderson’s character. I thought that maybe this would be a story about both sides coming around and seeing eye to eye, but I’m naive. America’s too polarized for that story right now. Instead, this is a story of Allie learning how to stand up for herself, speak up for her faith, and accept that not everyone is going to be accepting.

In many ways, All-American Muslim Girl is the American version of one of my favorite Aussie books, Does My Head Look Big in This? Above all, it’s a heartwarming, honest, educational, well-written and timely tale about identity, imperfection, faith, and family. And people of all faiths can, hopefully, relate to that.

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: 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.

Meet the Hero: Archer

Meet Archer


Full Name:
Archer Cross

Featured in: Fool Moon
by C.K. Brooke

From: Cree

Status: Self-proclaimed highwayman hunter

Distinguishing characteristics: Brown hair, goatee. Carries a bow & arrow and rides a golden horse called Sunbeam.

Motivations: Ridding the roads of highwaymen, protecting the innocent, restoring justice his way and making a living in the process.


Archer’s Story:

Armed with a rare blessing, Archer Cross cannot be harmed by evil. However, that doesn’t mean his loved ones can’t be. Haunted by a traumatic event in his past, Archer has devoted his days to ridding Creee’s roads of the murderous highwaymen that plague them. The one thing he doesn’t have time for is a strange girl beseeching him to escort her to a wicked land that lies impossibly far away. Until she presents him with a magical offer he can’t refuse…


Join Archer and Lori’s journey in my original fairy tale, Fool Moon, available in paperback, eBook, and audio:

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Fool-Moon-Novella-C-K-Brooke-ebook/dp/B00ZQG6JXU
Audible: https://www.audible.com/pd/Fool-Moon-A-Novella-Audiobook/B07BN4HJ9H
B&N: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/fool-moon-c-k-brooke/1122329708?ean=9780692579589
BAM: http://www.booksamillion.com/p/Fool-Moon/C-K-Brooke/9780692579589?id=6145510849157

Add to TBR on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26077562-fool-moon


Meet the Hero: Lancelot

Meet Lance


Full Name:
Lancelot “Lance” Dulac

Featured in: I, Guinevere by C.K. Brooke

From: Dulac’s Farm, Camylot, Isle of the Bryttons

Status: Farmer’s son, swordsman hobbyist

Distinguishing characteristics: Young and handsome. Brown hair and amber-gold eyes. Skilled and promising swordsman.


Motivations:
Lance has long dreamed of wielding his beloved sword, Secace, in the queen’s army as a knight.

Lance’s Story:

The son of a farmer, Lancelot Dulac wants nothing humdrum for his future. His first love was his sword, Secace, when he first saw it in the swordsmith’s window. For two years he labored to save enough coin to purchase it. He was never expecting his second love to arrive in the form of a very headstrong—and very royal—girl, whom the wizard Merlyn has appointed Lance to teach…


Learn a whole new side of the classic legend in C.K. Brooke’s retelling, I, Guinevere:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07JFPQRP4/

Add to TBR on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42358264-i-guinevere