real-talk YA book reviews

The I’ll Be the Judge Flash Fiction Flash Contest

I’m a winner! And I want to share that experience with one of you!

This month, I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo, an international online writing challenge. I set a goal to write 30,000 words of a novel in the thirty-one days of July. And I did it!


Because I made my goal, I was given a package of special prizes and promos. One of these prizes was a 50% discount on Scrivener, a writing program with lots of tools to help novelists, students, intellectuals, etc. A program which I’ve actually been very interested in this month. And which I purchased full price… yesterday.


But after I finished weeping and kvetching over the missed opportunity to save a few bucks, I realized there was a way I could turn the situation around. Scrivener normally costs $40. It has completely changed my writing experience, and I’m never going back to MS Word.  I want to give my winner’s discount away to a fellow writer who can use it.

Enter: The Flash Fiction Flash Contest.

Here’s how it works: Send me a piece of your own original flash fiction. Flash fiction refers to a complete, self-contained story that is (for the purpose of this contest, at least) 1,000 words or less in length. Your submission should be based one of the three following prompts:

  • Escape from something is symbolized by getting rid of an item

  • Something unexpected becomes powerful

  • Someone saves the day by doing nothing

Click here to submit your piece via Surveymonkey. The reading process will be blind and anonymous.

In keeping with the “flash” theme, I’m going to make this a relatively short time frame. All submissions will be due no later than 11:59 pm on Wednesday, August 20, 2014. So sit down today and whip up that mini-story. Don’t be afraid to make it shorter than 1,000 words; concise style is the goal here. I will announce my decisions on Saturday, September 27.

One submission per person. In addition to the first prize of 50% off your purchase of Scrivener, the top three submissions will be published here on I’ll Be the Judge (unless you request that they not be for whatever reason). They will still be the sole property of the writers, of course. The first prize winner will receive via e-mail my code for 50% off Scrivener, which will need to be used before October 1.

Here is that link to submit once again. One submission per person, please. Don’t hesitate to comment with questions if there are things that are still unclear, or alternately, you can contact me by e-mail at

(Note: SurveyMonkey only allows 100 responses with the subscription I’m using, and I’m only one girl, after all, so at least as of now, this contest will be limited to the first 100 entries.)

Happy writing!


All I Need by Susane Colasanti

all in need

Enjoyability:       smile transpsmile transpsmile transp half graysmile transp graysmile transp gray

Deep Thoughts: brain2brain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2

Pages: 240   Copyright: 2013

The blurb: “Love is a journey with endless possibilities.

Skye wants to meet the boy who will change her life forever. Seth feels their instant connection the second he sees her. When Seth starts talking to Skye at the last beach party of the summer, it’s obvious to both of them that this is something real. But when Seth leaves for college before they exchange contact info, Skye wonders if he felt the same way she did—and if she will ever see him again. Even if they find their way back to each other, can they make a long-distance relationship work despite trust issues, ex drama, and some serious background differences?”

             Rachel, if you’re here, thank you so much for letting me borrow this, and I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me for the skeptical review ahead.

           Here comes the skepticism: hmmmmmm.

            I am a big romantic, and usually very generous when it comes to stretching of reality in love stories (I will defend Marius and Cosette’s insta-love to my deathbed.) But right off the bat, this one was a little shaky for me. Seth falls in love at first sight with Skye in a big way, and she goes along with it because she was already on the lookout for a summer love, which I get, but it was still all pretty speedy.

Omigod, technology is like, so fake??? We’re not like other teenagers, we’re like really special???

            Then there’s the fact that this was truly a pure romance book, in that there was really nothing else to the plot other than the progression of Skye and Seth’s relationship. Technically there was friend drama for Skye and college drama for Seth, but those storylines took a big backseat and were more like icing. That might have been okay, except for that their love story was so… simple. There wasn’t any kind of a twist, you know? They were just two regular American kids who started talking, liked each other, and went on cute dates. Neither of them was a werewolf, or a pop star, or a foreign exchange student. They didn’t meet at an airport or as swimmers on rival swim teams. Normally when somebody asks you “what’s that book about?”, you can give them a one-sentence premise that explains what the twist is, what’s interesting about this particular story. I guess for All I Need, it would be that they meet on vacation and then are separated without contact information, but (spoiler alert) that only lasts a few chapters. Then they’re still doing long-distance, but it doesn’t even really quite go there, because they’re close enough to see each other nearly every week.

            But I’ve read a few other people’s reviews, and one of the most common comments is also the one that is loudest in my own mind: the message tied up with the title is really very troubling. Skye literally says at one point that Seth’s love is “all I need.” Seth acts out a similar sentiment by frequently feeling guilty for choosing college-related opportunities that could be vital to his future over free time to be with Skye, and even begins to actively eschew those opportunities in favor of Skye. When Skye’s parents express concern for Skye over the same issue, they’re depicted as grumpy cynics who just don’t understand about true love. Near the climax of the story, Skye actually makes a MASSIVE life decision against what really interests her, so that she can be near Seth instead. And this is never depicted as a problem.

            No!! No, no, no! Young(-er than me) girls, if you are reading this review, please do not be Skye!

            Some people really do meet the loves of their lives when they’re teenagers, but even if you’re in that minority, it’s only true love if it stretches and flexes and waits to allow you to live your life the way you would if you were flying solo. When you’re a married adult, you make compromises in your choices to consider your spouse, but when you’re a 17-year-old who met a cute guy on the beach, you live your own dang life.

            Romantic love is not All You Need. Romantic love will not fix all your problems, and romantic love does not negate the need for fulfilling creative expression, a satisfying career, close friendships. There is even a large community of people who aren’t interested in romantic love in their lives at all, ever. This kind of harmful love-aholic message is exactly what the romantic genre is criticized and reviled for. Most of the time those allegations are uninformed and incorrect. Here, though, I was very hard-put to defend.

            Things that went right: Skye and Seth were both well-formed and distinct from each other. Their voices were different enough that I didn’t get lost in the alternating-voices format. Their friends, though secondary characters, were also well-developed and very interesting. And Skye and Seth did seem to be pretty supportive of each other, when not discussing opportunities that would separate them.

           I just couldn’t help but feel that this book was doing exactly the things that YA needs to be steering away from. I really enjoyed Susane’s book When it Happens, and I don’t remember being troubled by the themes in that one. I think she may have just gotten a little carried away here with the cute factor and stumbled into a bad territory.

A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller

mad wicked folly

Enjoyability:      smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transp graysmile transp gray

Deep Thoughts: brain2brain2brain2brain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2

Pages: 406   Copyright: 2014

                The blurb: “Welcome to the world of the fabulously wealthy in London, 1909, where dresses and houses are overwhelmingly opulent, social class means everything, and women are taught to be nothing more than wives and mothers. Into this world comes seventeen-year-old Victoria Darling, who wants only to be an artist—a nearly impossible dream for a girl.
            After Vicky poses nude for her illicit art class, she is expelled from her French finishing school. Shamed and scandalized, her parents try to marry her off to the wealthy Edmund Carrick-Humphrey. But Vicky has other things on her mind: her clandestine application to the Royal College of Art; her participation in the suffragette movement; and her growing attraction to a working-class boy who may be her muse—or may be the love of her life. As the world of debutante balls, corsets, and high society obligations closes in around her, Vicky must figure out: just how much is she willing to sacrifice to pursue her dreams?

                I very much enjoyed this book. It was a solid story written in an engaging style. I also appreciated the historical aspect that let me feel like I was learning something.

                Victoria was not my favorite protagonist. I related to her love for her craft and was sometimes inspired by her perseverance and dedication to it. However, I found myself yelling at her pretty often, mainly when her optimism crossed the line into delusion. She frequently overestimated how forgiving and generous her family and society would be. The problem took a new form when at times she turned out to be right—leading to a sense of magical author powers being over-utilized.

                Victoria also drove me insane at times with her lack of thought for others, primarily in regards to a certain love interest. She is incredibly dishonest with him, and doesn’t even consider how thoroughly her lack of honesty messes with his life and his feelings.

                So Victoria won’t be invited to my personal heroines club, but again, I admired her a lot for her devotion to art and to her practicality and strategizing about getting where she wanted to go with it. Because of that, I didn’t have trouble rooting for her. And it’s hard for a story set in an era of gowns and carriages not to entertain me. I also really enjoyed reading about the women’s suffrage movement in the setting of a narrative. A Mad, Wicked Folly wasn’t a showstopper, but it was certainly not a waste of time.

Special Awards:

eagle Soaring Eagle for inspirational-ness– I was especially inspired because I related Victoria’s artist journey to myself as a writer.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

night circus

Enjoyability:        smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transp

Deep Thoughts: brain2brain2brain2half brain outlinebrain outline transp 2

Pages: 512   Copyright: 2011

                The synopsis: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

                  But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”


                I have a mental list of books that I will never forget, books that had an outstanding and exceptional impact on me. And guess what the newest tome to make the cut is?

                I’ve noticed that here at I’ll Be the Judge, when I name what the best quality of a book is, it often seems to be the character development. While The Night Circus did boast interesting and complex characters, it diverges from that trend, because there’s no question about it: what shines brightest is the description and scene building. Any given chapter could be an example text for a description-centric session of a writing workshop. Erin Morgenstern would be best in her class that day. She consistently engages all five senses, and you feel the circus all around you in vivid and elaborate beauty.

                I could tell before I even read the first page that the romance in this book was going to be a doozy, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was tantalizingly drawn out and slow-developing, but not in an annoying way. The chemistry was sparking right off the page. And in the moments when the sparks finally came together into fireworks, I was about to call for the smelling salts. It was all done very, very romantically and sticks in my mind almost like a fairy tale.

                Basically, The Night Circus was everything that I love. I think the biggest reason it spoke to me so much was the sense of elegance and whimsy. It’s the kind of book that you would feel at home reading on a setee in a victorian mansion in France while wearing a silk dressing gown—or that can make you feel like you’re doing all of that, even when you sadly are not actually. And as you can maybe tell from the specificity of that image, I put a lot of spiritual energy into wishing for a Victorian mansion, so anything that makes me feel closer to such is more than welcome in my life.

                The Boston Globe describes The Night Circus in two words: “A showstopper.” All the words I’ve used so far couldn’t put it better. I’m utterly impressed by Erin Morgenstern. How is she even a person. Omg. Omg. Omg i can’t even crying chills love explosion panic at the disco adjnifnewif

Special Awards:

sqee Squeee! For romance.

music notes Lyrical for pretty pretty writing.

pow!  *NEW* Ka-Pow! Award for a killer closing line. This book is so good I’m creating new awards for it. I just reread the last sentence and got chills again. (No cheating and reading it before the end, of course. That would take out all the power of it.)

                    Yeah, so, uh. Go read The Night Circus. 

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


Enjoyability:       smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transp graysmile transp gray

Deep Thoughts:  brain2brain2brain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2

Pages: 355   Copyright: 2014

               Lara Jean Covey is not a big fan of change. Her two sisters and her father have been comfortingly stable since her mother died, and now that her older sister Margot is going off to college in Scotland, she’s praying for some of her past to stay alive with her as she enters her junior year of high school.

                You know what they say: be careful what you wish for. Because Lara Jean’s wish comes true in a way she didn’t bargain for. She keeps five sealed unmailed letters in a hatbox in her closet: love letters to each of the boys she has loved. When she seals each letter, she says goodbye to the boy to whom it is addressed and moves on with her life. But when the letters are accidentally and mysteriously mailed, all that closure is suddenly blown wide open, and Lara Jean ends up in a strange situation with a boy from her childhood in an effort to hide the truth from a boy with an even older presence in her story.

                I’ve heard Jenny Han’s name before, but this was the first of her work that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it. In one way, none of the characters felt quite overwhelmingly realistic and breathing enough for me to lose myself in the world of the story or even to relate to them. But I did like that they had unexpected angles and that they had personalities of their own, rather than being empty vessels in which to insert people I know. At times I felt distant from Lara Jean, when she was prim or fussy in a very different way from me. But at other times, I could totally empathize with her—like when she felt pigeonholed as naïve and uptight, or when she otherwise struggled with her image.

                The thing that struck me as most refreshingly realistic about this book was the portrayal of young people’s relationships—not romantically, just in general. Lara Jean’s best friend Chris is sort of a “bad girl” who drinks alcohol, goes to crazy parties, and has lots of jaded and cynical (and perportedly experience-based) opinions about sex, but despite Lara Jean being so not like that, they’re still close, because they got to truly know each other when they were younger. Their friendship was unlike any I’ve seen really ever before in YA. Her interactions with Peter, a neighborhood friend turned popular sports guy, was similarly refreshing and evolved in really unexpected ways.

                There was something very sweet and sincere about this book. It also had strong plot flow and really kept me reading—the story never stayed too long in one place. It wasn’t a total stoundout for me, because I often felt aware that I was reading a story rather than losing myself in the world; but I’m not at all sorry that I read it, and I look forward to the resolution in the sequel next year.

                  PS: I love the cover. The model looks perfect for Lara Jean, and the title script seriously looks like they wrote it on with a Sharpie. Like, seriously. How do they do that? Look closely and you’ll see what I mean. The ink gets lighter and darker where it crosses or loops, like a marker does with varying hand pressure.

                 PPS Confession: The name Lara Jean annoys me. Sorry if any of my readers are named that. You have my permission to be annoyed by my name if you need retribution.

Where’s the Wall?

Is it possible for a novel to have a fourth wall?

                For those who don’t know, the “fourth wall” is the theatrical concept of the illusion that in the world of the story being performed, everything is real and the audience is nonexistent—there is no gap in the living room wall and no crowd seated just outside it watching the family proceedings. In other words, the characters never acknowledge or address the audience. When a character speaks to the viewers directly, it is called breaking the fourth wall.

                But the written word follows slightly different rules. Since a reader cannot actually see the scene, the physical environment and proceedings must be discussed and named in a way that they never would be naturally—when we get angry in real life, we never yell “I clench my fists and step towards him menacingly!” (unless maybe if we’re playing Dungeons and Dragons). So does that mean that in written fiction, the fourth wall can never be intact? After all, even in the case of third person perspectives, a narrator must perform this task.

                Still, there are definitely levels. For example, some third-person narrators only speak to the reader in the vaguest way, providing the vital images and offering no further commentary, while others begin to show personality and make comments that alter the reader understanding of the plot. In the realm of first-person novels, we have stories that are written as diaries or are otherwise immediately acknowledged as a story being read (like David Copperfield, I guess, which I haven’t actually read.) And then, to take it a step further, there are cases where the author themself actually chimes in during the story—like Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.

                Personally, I like it when protagonists are chatty and speak to me directly. If it’s done well, it makes it easier to relate to that character, and to form an emotional bond with them. I also think it would be enjoyable to write a character that way. It just makes a character very immediate and very knowable.

                Thoughts? Comments? What counts as the fourth wall in a novel?

Gateways to Graphic Novels

     Last Tuesday, I had an appointment to refresh my haircut, which is based on the style of the character Ramona Flowers from one of my favorite movies, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

(I haven't yet gone blue. Also no bangs.)

(I haven’t yet gone blue. Also no bangs.)

     In honor of this occasion, I decided to check the original comic book/graphic novel upon which the film was based out from the library. I was excited to try the format because I was largely unfamiliar with it.

     What I’ve been struck with most so far is how word-for-word similar it is to the movie. As a bibliophile accustomed to raging about the liberties taken by film adaptions, I was expecting to find a completely different story. So far, though, that hasn’t been the case. I’ll probably keep reading it, but it will be mainly for the novelty of it, because I’m not getting much more than I already got in terms of plot.

     Considering my obsession with Homestuck, a comic that’s published exclusively online, graphic storytelling seems like something I should probably explore. I also recently attended a session of my teen writing group with a visiting cartoonist and animator, who further intrigued me with the cartoon/graphic novel process.

    However, for now, I’m more interested in the possibility of creating a comic than reading more of them. It seems like a good way to combine two of my primary artistic interests right now, writing and drawing. However, when it comes to my life as a consumer, a part of me prefers to keep my words and pictures separate, in books and movies/TV, respectively. But that’s subject to change.

     Any thoughts on the pros and cons of graphic-assisted storytelling? I’d love to hear them.