All Your Twisted Secrets, by Diana Urban, has an intriguing premise. Amber, our main character and narrator, is attending a dinner with the mayor and several of her other classmates, all of whom have supposedly won a college scholarship. All of the classmates have a close connection to Amber, as in they are her boyfriend, her estranged best friend, her current bitchy best friend, her secret crush, and a stoner who always seems to be around. The mayor never shows up, and suddenly the door slams shut and they're all locked in the basement's restaurant. The kids find a syringe and a note that says if one of them doesn't take the syringe full of poison and die in the next hour, the all six of them will die because a bomb will go off.
This book has been compared to The Breakfast Club, which I've seen, and to Saw, which I have not seen. It reminded me more of the type of morality scenarios that are often discussed in philosophy or social science classes, like the famous "Trolley Problem." A trolley is racing down the tracks and can't be stopped. It will for sure kill five people unless you flip a switch and change course, but in that case, one person will be killed. It seems easy at first. Of course you'd kill the one as opposed to the five. But when you think about it becomes more complicated, because by flipping the switch, you are intentionally killing one person as opposed to unintentionally killing five. So, a major issue the characters grapple with in All Your Twisted Secrets is how do they decide to intentionally kill one of them, and whom should it be? Or, rather than committing murder, should they allow themselves all to die from the bomb explosion?
Of course, this situation creates a ton of conflict. The story alternates between the six main characters being stuck in the restaurant's basement, and flashbacks, where we learn about the messed up lives they all have, and we start to understand how all the conflict came to be. I'd be lying if I said the book wasn't at times riveting, and I kept reading even when I'd guessed what was going on. But ultimately I was disappointed. The dialogue was fairly stiff (I started counting all the times a characters said "ugh." It was a lot!) The characters were mostly two-dimensional, and there too many coincidences for me to find the story believable.
In one of my grad classes for my MFA in Creative Writing, I read that a story's end should seem both surprising and inevitable. The end of All Your Twisted Secrets was neither. I predicted it, all while thinking to myself, "Come on. That could never happen."
I did enjoy reading All Your Twisted Secrets, because the setup at the beginning was well done, and Diana Urban is skilled at building suspense. That said, I can't whole-heartedly recommend it, not when there are so many other novels with great premises and suspense that also manage to nail dialogue, characterization and satisfying endings as well.
In my quest to write quality YA fiction, I’ve been reading quality YA fiction, hoping something will sink in through osmosis. They do say that the best way to learn to write is by reading, and with that in mind, Jessica Goodman’s They Wish They Were Us was an excellent choice. It’s a great story with a surprisingly feminist message.
The main character is Jill Newman, who attends a prestigious Long Island private high school on scholarship. Jill comes from an artsy Jewish family, and her parents, who are solidly middle class, struggle to make ends meet. If it weren’t for her scholarship, she couldn’t afford to go to Gold Coast Prep, and now that college is on the horizon, Jill knows she will need another scholarship to attend her dream school, Brown. The pressure can be overwhelming, and it’s one of the reasons Jill endures all the hazing and crazy social obligations of being “a Player” - which means she is part of an elite “secret” society of students, and which gives her access to all sorts of answer keys to tests and other study materials.
But membership comes at a cost. During her freshman year, Jill had to undergo grueling and humiliating “pops” - which were tests that the upperclassmen players concocted for her and her peers to prove their worthiness. Freshman year, on the last night of the pops and right before initiation, Jill is nearly raped. Luckily, she escapes that horrible fate, but her best friend is not so lucky. Shaila, the most beautiful and compelling of them all, is found dead. Her boyfriend is quickly accused and convicted. But three years later, when Jill is a senior, new doubts come to light.
Jill is the only one who seems to care that Shaila’s murderer might still be out there. But in her pursuit for truth and justice, she risks losing everything: her friends, her reputation, her academic future, and even her life.
They Wish They Were Us is a perfectly crafted mystery. Alternating between flashbacks and present day, it’s a slow reveal of terrible secrets and surprising truths about all the major characters. While I did guess who the real killer was, getting to that culminating scene where everything clicks into place was still nail-biting. And, like I said, the story had a surprisingly strong feminist message. Because, while the Players are equal numbers male and female, the hazing for the girls is far more brutal.
At one point, Jill wonders “Why did the boys have the power? Why did they make the rules while we dealt with the consequences?” This novel is primarily a mystery, but it also explores self-discovery, female friendship, and the pitfalls of young love.
They Wish They Were Us works on every level, and I strongly recommend it for adults and teens alike.
My Book Reviews
I love novels! My favorite genres are high-end women's fiction, suspense, and psychological thrillers, but occasionally I'll also pick up some chick lit or YA. I mostly read books on my kindle, and I also listen to audio books every morning when I go for my run.