real-talk YA book reviews

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eyre affairEnjoyability:       smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transp gray

Deep Thoughts: brain2brain2brain2half brain outlinebrain outline transp 2

Pages: 374   Copyright: 2001

The blurb: “Welcome to a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide.”

My own blurb is five words: hardboiled detective for literature geeks. Oh, and also she’s a woman.

                That pretty much sums it up; and yeah, it was about as cool as it sounds. For me, The Eyre Affair wasn’t the kind of book you whip through large sections of at a time, but more one that you read over a long period in short sessions. It wasn’t a page turner, but it was thick with dry humor and subtle intelligent references. (Definitely worth a read for fans of Douglas Adams– it actually had a lot of similarities to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.) A mature thematic backbone of war, grief, and moral crossroads served as the support for an endlessly towering supply of silliness. Characters had goofy names like Victor Analogy, Continued Overleaf, and Jack Schitt. Occasionally Fforde’s love of comedy strained at the limits of the story and overstepped its place (like a gag, in one of the most intense scenes of the book, which led the sentences and words of the story to be peppered with random apostrophes and hyphens. People were negotiating with a madman! People were shooting at each other! I wanted to get into the scene, and tripping over punctuation stumbling blocks was nothing but frustrating.) More often, though, things stayed on the classier side of comedy, and it was my favorite kind of witty.

                I loved Thursday. She wasn’t perfect, but she almost always thought rationally and made the best decision available, and I liked that about her. I never had to be frustrated by watching the heroes create unnecessary conflict with their refusal to see reason, thank goodness. That’s a kind of artificial plot building that often turns me off to an entire book. I also liked that at first, Thursday seems to be all steely business, but as you follow her, you suddenly start to see lots of emotions, and as you learn to read her (no pun intended) better and better, you realize that those emotions were there from the beginning. It was a very organic process of getting to know a reserved person.

                As for the minor characters, a lot of them started to blend together. For example, Thursday had a lot of bosses at different levels in SpecOps, and I could never really keep them straight. The same goes for the various henchmen of the main villain. The men that Thursday was more fond of were more defined. Maybe we were just seeing Thursday’s perspective; as far as it concerns her, I guess the various bosses and henchmen are fairly interchangeable.

                The more you know about literature, the more enjoyable The Eyre Affair will probably be for you. There were many ongoing references to Dickens and Shakespeare, various poets, and of course, the Bröntes. There were also a number of history references/jokes that sort of went over my head. I liked the intellectual atmosphere, though.

                  The Eyre Affair was very British, very nerdy, and full of heart. It’s worth noting that this was Jasper Fforde’s first published novel; he may not have ironed out all his editing skills yet (not that a writer ever really irons out all their editing skills). But I don’t think there’s any other book out there quite like this one, and I think that alone makes it worth the read.

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let it snow

Enjoyability:      smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transp half gray

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

Pages: 352   Copyright: 2008

The blurb: “Sparkling white snowdrifts, beautiful presents wrapped in ribbons, and multicolored lights glittering in the night through the falling snow. A Christmas Eve snowstorm transforms one small town into a romantic haven, the kind you see only in movies. Well, kinda. After all, a cold and wet hike from a stranded train through the middle of nowhere would not normally end with a delicious kiss from a charming stranger. And no one would think that a trip to the Waffle House through four feet of snow would lead to love with an old friend. Or that the way back to true love begins with a painfully early morning shift at Starbucks. Thanks to three of today’s bestselling teen authors—John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle—the magic of the holidays shines on these hilarious and charming interconnected tales of love, romance, and breathtaking kisses.”

               Hey, everybody! I’m college now! I’m posting this from my dorm as my dream catcher lays on the desk beside me because my command hook wasn’t man enough to stay on my cinderblock wall. If anybody knows of a satanic substance that will stick to the unstickable, please let me know, because this situation is unnacceptable. But anyhoo, on to the book. 

                Let It Snow was not as mushy as the blurb makes it sound. The only author of the three that I had any past experience with was John Green, but Johnson and Myracle passed the test—they fit in easily at the lunch table of the witty and talented YA writers that I already know and love.

                I liked and felt a connection to all three of the protagonists, and all three of the love stories were excellently fresh and strong— there’s a case to be made for formulaic swoony romances, but these connections weren’t those. Myracle’s story was the closest to that swoony zone, and I’ve been given to understand that some readers found it the weakest of the three, but I thought it was sincerely sweet and dodged clichés as well as the other two.

                The interweaving of the three stories was also very well and naturally done. If this book had been sold as the work of a single author, I think I would have believed it. Each story had its own flavor, but they tossed together into a tastefully cohesive salad. With the added bonus of the snowy, hot-chocolatey winter theme, this is the perfect pick for cold blanket-pile days and summery imaginings alike.

Special Awards:

sqee  Squee for romantic prowess.

comedy mask ROFL award because although I didn’t laugh out loud a lot, there was a lot of witty humor, especially in Green’s section.

What’s super fun and closing in three days? The I’ll Be the Judge Flash Fiction Flash Contest! You still have time to send me a super-short story!


queen geekEnjoyability:     smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transp graysmile transp gray

Deep Thoughts:brain2brain2half brain outlinebrain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2

Pages: 319  Copyright: 2006

          The blurb: If you’re somebody like Shelby Chappelle, a smart, witty, pretty geek army of one, you can’t just put a poster up at school and advertise for somebody to be your best friend. But now freakishly tall Becca Gallagher has moved to town, with her dragon tattoo and wild ideas. Suddenly Shelby’s mad scientist father and their robot, Euphoria, seem normal. They become best friends instantly. But Becca wants to shake things up at school and look for “others of our kind”…and decides to form the Queen Geek Social Club. The thing is, this guy Fletcher Berkowitz keeps nosing around, asking lots of questions about the Club. He’s cute, and interesting, and possibly likes Shelby. Therefore, she must torture him. One good thing about being a loner: no one can break your heart.” (NOTE: this book is actually the first in a trilogy, though it pretty much stands on its own.)

          I read the first few pages of The Queen Geek Social Club in a second-hand bookstore and was immediately captivated by Shelby. She was a girl who embodied a certain combination of traits that creators of fiction are too often unwilling to allow coexistence: interested in dating and relatively traditionally feminine, on the outskirts of high school society, and confident and powerful. And that’s pretty much the premise of the book: girls organizing to be powerful feminine geeks.

          In practice, the story had a certain safeness that kept it from reaching the full battle cry of edginess that girl-crusaders can rally behind. The problem is that I couldn’t fully buy in to Shelby (and her friends)’s geekhood. There were references to her liking old sci-fi movies, and each of her friends had their “thing”—colorful hair, intensely Type-A personality, passion for dark poetry—but I felt more like I was being told they were eccentric and expected to believe it than actually being shown the money. I would have liked their characters to have delved deeper beyond simple stock-quirk appearances and to have seemed like more genuine representations of the many kinds of girl that feel high school is not their turf.

          Even so, the heart was definitely in the right place in this book, and the message was, overall, executed in a way that I loved. The Queen Geeks recognized the pitfalls of teen girl life and fought against them without attempting to force themselves unnaturally in the other direction. Preble gives them permission to be everything: susceptible to the allure of cute boys, but determined not to change to impress them or to allow their lives to revolve around them. Put off by the negative messages of fashion magazines, but still inclined to spend a little too long choosing the perfect ensemble for an important social event. Smart, but not always glued to a textbook.

          Both Shelby and Becca’s difficulties with their family situations added depth to them and highlighted their complexities. Despite not really having that much in common with Shelby, I actually related to her a lot. I really enjoyed the friendship between the two, and I enjoyed waiting to see what Becca’s next Geek campaign would be, and how the group’s image in the eyes of the school would evolve.

          There was a slight packaged flavor to this book that kept it from fully blowing up for me, but there was a positivity, sweetness, and sense of fun that made me glad I read it.

          Don’t forget to send me your super-short story for the Flash Fiction Flash Contest!


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.


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.


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.”

                MLERRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!

                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. 


15749186

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.