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REVIEW: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Dear Ms. Marchetta,

I have a bone to pick with you. I’ve got a packed read-and-review schedule for the next month or so, and I need to be able to move from book to book. But you’ve made that impossible. Yes, I blame you. It’s your fault that your book, Jellicoe Road, left me so drained and dazed that I can’t read anything else.

I tried. I tried a sexy historical romance. I tried a contemporary erotic novel. I tried a thought-provoking science fiction story. I tried one of my very favorite books from last year. I even eyed another YA. I put them all back down after a page or two.

It’s not that they were bad. They just weren’t your book. They weren’t Jellicoe Road.

It really isn’t fair of you to write a book that’s so beautiful and powerful that everything else pales in comparison.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me explain that when I picked up this book to read for Keishon’s TBR challenge, I was cheating a bit. Yes, technically speaking Jellicoe Road was first published in 2006 (The Australian edition called On the Jellicoe Road), but the American edition came out in 2008, and it’s only been sitting in my TBR pile for a few months.

I first heard of this book here on the YA YA YAs blog. Then I heard that it won the American Library Association’s Printz Award. Then it was selected for DABWAHA. At that point I bit the bullet and bought it in hardcover, a purchase that was worth every penny and then some.

I read Jellicoe Road for the TBR challenge because this month’s theme is “Tortured hero or tortured heroine,” and I had the sense that this book had its share of tortured characters. Boy, was I right about that.

The heroine of the story, Taylor Markham, is a seventeen year old boarding school student at the Jellicoe School, which is about 600 kilometers from Sydney. Taylor was abandoned by her mother in the bathroom of a 7-Eleven when she was just eleven years old. A woman named Hannah began taking care of her at that point, and Taylor suspects Hannah knows something about her mother, but whatever it is, Hannah won’t reveal it.

Taylor enrolled in the Jellicoe School when she was thirteen. When she was fourteen, a hermit whispered something in her ear and then shot himself. But Taylor can’t remember what he told her, and she has other memory gaps as well. She also dreams about a boy in a tree who knows things about her. Sometimes her life feels like a mystery that she can’t solve.

Just after the hermit committed suicide in front of her, Taylor took off to try and find her mother. On the way to Sydney she met a boy named Jonah Griggs, who is rumored to have killed his father, and who is one of the cadets, military school students who camp near Taylor’s school for six weeks every spring and every fall.

The kids from Taylor’s school have a territorial war with the cadets and with a third group of students who live in the town, known as the townies. So Taylor’s running off with a cadet was not looked on well by her fellow students. But Taylor and Jonah made a connection. Taylor opened her heart to Jonah and trusted him, and when he called an adult to come and take them back to their schools, she felt betrayed.

Now, three years later, Taylor is unwilling to trust anyone again. She presents a hardened exterior to the world. Despite this, Taylor is chosen through some convoluted politics to be the leader of the Jellicoe School kids in the next round of wars. The leader of the townies is Chaz Santangelo, who has a history with Taylor’s friend and supporter, Raffaela. And the leader of the cadets is Jonah Griggs. So Taylor must come face to face with Jonah again, this time as two leaders of enemy factions.

And just as this is about to happen, Hannah, the one constant in Taylor’s life since her mother abandoned her, disappears from her house without a word to Taylor.

As this story unfolds, told in Taylor’s first person narration POV, it is interspersed with third person italicized fragments of another story, about a group of kids who were involved in a car accident that killed the parents of three of them. The connection between the two stories isn’t revealed until deep into the book, so I won’t say what it is.

Can Taylor lead the Jellicoe School? Where has Hannah gone to? Will Taylor be able to piece together the secrets from her past, or unearth her lost memories? What about Jonah Griggs? Is he truly the enemy, or does he care for Taylor more than he allows her to see? And how is the story of the other group of kids relevant?

The above is a summary of what the book is about, but it doesn’t do justice to how moving it is, how good the writing is, or how memorable the characters are. Taylor is indelibly so. Although she has a lot to be tortured about, she is the last person to wear her suffering on her sleeve. Instead, she has a stony demeanor.

Here, for example, is an exchange between Hannah and Taylor which takes place when Hannah informs Taylor of the transfer of some girls to the dormitory Taylor is in charge of:

“Transfers,” she says, handing me the sheet. I don’t bother even looking at it.

“My House is full. No more transfers,” I tell her.

“There are some fragile kids on that list.”

“Then why transfer them to me?”

“Because you’ll be here during the holidays.”

“What makes you think I don’t have anywhere to go these holidays?”

“I want you to take them under your wing, Taylor.”

“I don’t have wings, Hannah.”

But for all her prickliness, Taylor’s inner thoughts eventually reveal her vulnerability. Here’s a scene that comes when she is floating on water:

My body becomes a raft and there’s this part of me that wants just literally to go with the flow. To close my eyes and let it take me. But I know sooner or later I will have to get out, that I need to feel the earth beneath my feet, between my toes–the splinters, the bindi-eyes, the burning sensation of hot dirt, the sting of cuts, the twigs, the bites, the heat, the discomfort, the everything. I need desperately to feel it all, so when something wonderful happens, the contrast will be so massive that I will bottle the impact and keep it for the rest of my life.

If Taylor isn’t what she appears to be at first, neither are many of the other characters. Their layers are peeled back gradually, and involve discoveries of things neither Taylor nor the readers know, so I don’t want to reveal them. In fact, it takes a few chapters to figure out exactly what is going on, but that is part of the charm of the book, because the reader’s confusion mirrors the sense of mystery Taylor feels about her own life. Some of the puzzles take most of the book to be put together, and although I guessed at certain truths before Taylor understood these things, that did not lessen my enjoyment of the book.

In fact, “enjoyment” seems like too mild a word. After its slow start, the book gathered more and more momentum, until I was completely swept away from thoughts of my own life. I became so invested in Taylor and the other characters in the book that some sections seemed heartbreaking to read, albeit in a cathartic and healing way. I laughed and cried — or, as my husband put it, “blubbered.” When I finished this book, my tear ducts felt completely empty.

I loved the intricacy of this story, the way so many small and seemingly unimportant details turned out to be important in the end, the way the different threads connected. It’s a rare book that seems so seamless when I finish it, that takes such complete hold of me with its magic.

Despite its YA designation, Jellicoe Road deals with a lot of adult themes, and includes a romance and even a couple of brief sex scenes, so while I would not recommend it for younger kids, I do wholeheartedly recommend it to older teens and to adults.

Thank you, Ms. Marchetta, for writing such a powerful, beautiful, unforgettable book. A for Jellicoe Road.

Sincerely,

Janine

This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook although this is a HarperTeen release and HT is fairly good about ebook releases. At least you know who to contact if you want a legitimate digital copy.

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

54 Comments

  1. Janine
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 18:02:29

    No ebook although this is a HarperTeen release and HT is fairly good about ebook releases. At least you know who to contact if you want a legitimate digital copy.

    I’m sorry to see this note of Jane’s. On the up side, I suspect that because this book won the American Library Association’s Printz Award, it may be relatively easy to find in libraries.

  2. Darlynne
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 20:01:33

    I wondered about this title, and now I know. Thanks for another great review.

  3. Janine
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 20:04:17

    You’re welcome, Darlynne. I really loved it, so I hope some people give it a try! And I would love to hear from anyone who has read it.

  4. Jess
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 21:00:35

    Oh, you’ve almost inspired me to pick it up. I have resisted for ages because multiple sources have told me it didn’t quite live up to her first book “Looking for Alibrandi”. To be fair, “Looking for Alibrandi” is just so beautifully written, with such fully realised characters and heartbreakingly relatable emotions & experiences that very little could live up to it, but if you are looking for something else by this author, I cannot recommend it enough.

    And yes, I may be hauling it off my bookshelf for a re-read now.

  5. Keishon
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 21:20:38

    I have this book and it’s good to know that I have a good read ahead of me. Thanks for a wonderful review, Janine :-)

  6. Amy @ My Friend Amy
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 22:38:31

    I feel as if I must read this now! Thanks for the fantastic review. I love/hate not being able to recover from a book.

  7. Janine
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 22:48:35

    @Jess:

    Oh, you've almost inspired me to pick it up. I have resisted for ages because multiple sources have told me it didn't quite live up to her first book “Looking for Alibrandi”. To be fair, “Looking for Alibrandi” is just so beautifully written, with such fully realised characters and heartbreakingly relatable emotions & experiences that very little could live up to it, but if you are looking for something else by this author, I cannot recommend it enough.

    I do plan to read Marchetta’s other books, including Looking for Alibrandi. But I plan to wait a while before I do. I don’t want to read her books too close together because (A) I want to savor them, and (B) if the rest are anything like this one, the intensity would be too much.

    Since I haven’t read Looking for Alibrandi, I can’t say whether not Jellicoe Road is equally good, but I can say that it is better than most of what I read. Some authors are so skilled that even their lesser works are better than most, and I have the feeling that Marchetta might be such an author. What have you got to lose by picking it up?

  8. Janine
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 22:56:08

    @Keishon:

    You’re welcome! I’m glad you already have the book. Keep in mind that the beginning is a bit confusing but if you stick with it, you will see that is part of the book’s charm. I hope you like it.

    @Amy @ My Friend Amy:

    I feel as if I must read this now! Thanks for the fantastic review. I love/hate not being able to recover from a book.

    You’re welcome too. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. I was just telling a friend today that being unable to read anything else is one of the signs of having read a truly excellent book. For that reason, I don’t actually mind it. Usually I just go back and reread the book I just finished (the one that made me feel that way). With Jellicoe Road, I couldn’t do that because I was so wrung out (in a good way).

    Anyway, I hope that people can tell that I wasn’t seriously complaining and that the first four paragraphs of this review are an attempt to get across how strong this book’s effect on me was.

  9. Angie
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 23:09:22

    Thank you so much for reviewing this one. I, too, found it through Tricia’s review at The YA YA YAs and was completely blown away by it. Had the worst time moving on. Move on? To what after this? :) It deserves every accolade it gets.

  10. Kelly
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 23:11:31

    I felt the same way after finishing this one! You hit the nail on the head…intricacy is the perfect way to describe this book.

    Maybe give Broken Soup by Jenny Valentine a try? I loved it in a different way and almost as much as Jellicoe Road, but they were still similar enough that I would recommend it to you…if that makes any sense.

  11. Keziah Hill
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 23:21:18

    She’s an interesting woman. After Looking for Alibrandi was published, she taught in high school for ten years. I liked the movie too.
    http://www.melinamarchetta.com.au/

  12. Jennie
    Jun 17, 2009 @ 23:39:40

    I’m super excited to give this a try; thanks for the great review!

  13. Janine
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 00:16:45

    @Angie:

    Thank you so much for reviewing this one.

    You’re totally welcome!

    I, too, found it through Tricia's review at The YA YA YAs and was completely blown away by it. Had the worst time moving on. Move on? To what after this? :)

    I’ve found a kindred spirit. That was my reaction exactly.

    It deserves every accolade it gets.

    Hear, hear!

  14. Janine
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 00:28:01

    @Kelly:

    I felt the same way after finishing this one!

    It looks like there’s more than two of us. Maybe we should start a club. You have no idea how gratifying it is to find more people who loved this book.

    You hit the nail on the head…intricacy is the perfect way to describe this book.

    Yeah, there is a complexity to the way the book is designed, with different elements and threads that come together sometimes as one might expect, and other times in unexpected ways. And yet emotionally, it has the potency of a work that’s been distilled to its essence. The whole of it hangs together beautifully.

    Maybe give Broken Soup by Jenny Valentine a try? I loved it in a different way and almost as much as Jellicoe Road, but they were still similar enough that I would recommend it to you…if that makes any sense.

    Thanks, I will look this one up.

  15. Janine
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 00:36:36

    @Keziah Hill:

    There’s an interview with Marchetta here. I was excited to see that her most recent book, Finnikin of the Rock, a YA fantasy, will be published in the US in the spring of 2010. I want to read that one when it comes out.

    @Jennie:

    I hope you enjoy it. Let me know your thoughts!

  16. Delta White
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 00:55:11

    It’s posts like this that make me appreciate blogs so much. Your feed has a new subscriber! ;)

  17. mia madwyn
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 06:44:03

    I always pay special attention to your reviews when you love something, Janine. This one goes on my list. (Wanders off to check for audiobook first….)

  18. Joseri
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 06:54:31

    I just have to say that Finnikin of the Rock is just as wonderful as Jellicoe Road. It definitely packs just as much of a punch as Marchetta’s previous books. I was worried that the fantasy setting would be distracting but I got so caught up in the story that it wasn’t an issue. My only problem with Marchetta is that she has only written 4 books. I’m glad to read that she has given up teaching to write full time.

  19. Chani
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 07:08:19

    I absolutely recommend ‘Looking for Alibrandi’. It was one of my favourites in high school, although it is pretty rooted in the 90s and some of the terminology might be dated.

    There is also a movie version of ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ with Anthony LaPaglia (from Without a Trace) as the main character’s father and Great Scacchi as her mother. Well worth a look!

  20. Jory Strong
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 08:07:04

    You convinced me. This sounds like an amazing read. I’ll give it a try.

  21. Heather
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 09:44:49

    I saw the title of this during the DABWAHA, but didn’t pay much attention. I don’t read a lot of YA and there wasn’t a description, so…

    I read this review and thought, hmmm, sounds interesting. Then I read the comments and saw Looking for Alibrandi. Why didn’t anyone mention that sooner?! I discovered that book when I was in Australia a couple years after it came out. It came highly recommended by the daughters of the family I was staying with. Loved it so much I bought my own copy to bring back to the States. Enjoyed her second one, but not as much as Alibrandi.

    Now this one is on my must-read list. Thanks!

  22. Kelly
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 10:52:11

    Thanks for the link to the Marchetta interview! Off to check that out now…

  23. Erin
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 11:02:48

    Janine,
    You’ve done it now. I can count the number of “real” books I’ve purchased post-kindle on one hand. Today at lunch I’m walking across the street (B&N across the street–Yay!) to add this one to that very short list. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

  24. Janine
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 11:46:14

    @mia madwyn:

    Thanks! I hope you enjoy this book. I would love to hear if you do.

    @Joseri:

    Thanks for letting me know about Finnikin of the Rock. I am really looking forward to its U.S. publication. I’m also glad to hear you’ve enjoyed every one of Marchetta’s books. Do you have a favorite?

    @Chani: Thanks, I will definitely read Looking for Alibrandi. Have you read Jellicoe Road or her other two books?

    @Heather:

    Now this one is on my must-read list. Thanks!

    You’re welcome. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I’d be interested to hear your reaction.

    @Kelly:

    You’re welcome. I was especially interested to see that Marchetta’s favorite books included The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, which I’ve enjoyed and reviewed here. And Anne of Green Gables, which I loved as a kid and need to reread sometime. They are so different from Jellicoe Road that I wouldn’t have expected it.

    @Erin:

    You've done it now. I can count the number of “real” books I've purchased post-kindle on one hand. Today at lunch I'm walking across the street (B&N across the street-Yay!) to add this one to that very short list. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

    Wow. I hope you feel it’s worth it — I know I did. And of course, I would love to hear your thoughts about the book when you read it.

  25. Janine
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 11:49:42

    @Jory Strong:

    Somehow I missed you! Sorry about that. For me, it was an amazing read. I hope it is for you as well. Let me know your thoughts on it if you are so inclined.

  26. SonomaLass
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 13:16:45

    And here was my 18-year-old daughter wondering what to read next. Thanks, Janine!

  27. Janine
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 13:17:34

    You’re welcome!

  28. Ana
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 13:22:00

    Thank you for reviewing Jellicoe Road. After reading it, I felt it was one of the best books I had ever read. I have now read all 4 of Melina’s books and I think each one has been better than the last. So, yes, Finnikin of the Rock is awesome!

    Ana

  29. Ana
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 13:22:35

    Thank you for reviewing Jellicoe Road. After reading it, I felt like it was one of the best books I had ever read. I have now read all 4 of Melina’s books and I think each one has been better than the last. So, yes, Finnikin of the Rock is awesome!

    Ana

  30. Trisha
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 15:44:06

    Awesome, more people are going to read Jellicoe Road! I just love this book so much and agree with Kelly that if you enjoyed Jellicoe, you should give Broken Soup a try. (*cough* I reviewed the latter last week if anyone wants to know why I think the two are similar *cough*).

    Can I just say I cannot wait until next year, when Megan Whalen Turner’s A Conspiracy of Kings AND the US edition of Finnikin of the Rock will be published?

    And thanks, Janine and Angie, for mentioning my review of Jellicoe.

  31. Janine
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 16:51:54

    @Ana: That is good news about Finnikin of the Rock and Marchetta’s other books.

    @Trisha: Thanks so much for writing that review. And I can’t wait for next year either. It seems like there are a lot of great books lined up to be published in 2010.

  32. Keishon
    Jun 18, 2009 @ 18:27:39

    Hey Trisha, you know you are a great book pimp! I bought this book because of your review as well. Also, Janine, I did try this book earlier and had put it down. I remember mentioning this to Trisha that the book had a confusing start. So thanks for the reminder. Hopefully I will read it soon. Thanks!

  33. LauraJane
    Jun 20, 2009 @ 15:12:53

    Janine, Thanks for your review. I’ve had this on my to-buy list for way too long but never made the leap to actually buy it. I read your review Friday night and purchased it Saturday morning. I’m looking forward to reading it. Laura

  34. Janine
    Jun 20, 2009 @ 16:37:48

    I hope you enjoy it, LauraJane, and as with everyone else, I would be interested in hearing what you think of it.

    @Delta White: I somehow missed your post before (I wonder if the spam filer ate it?) but a very warm thank you for the compliment and for subscribing to our feed!

  35. Erin
    Jun 22, 2009 @ 10:07:18

    Just jumping back in here to say that I did indeed purchase the last copy of this book on Friday afternoon. I finished the book on Saturday morning at about 2 AM. Wow. I’m so unbelievably impressed by your review now that I’ve read the book myself. Words failed me. Thank you so much for putting it on my radar. It’s easily the best book I’ve read this year.

  36. Janine
    Jun 22, 2009 @ 12:46:30

    Erin, I’m so glad you loved it too. Thanks so much for letting me know, and thank you for the kind words! I don’t give straight A’s very often, but I felt that this book really deserved one. It’s not often that a book hits me so powerfully.

  37. Melina Marchetta
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 00:45:29

    I don’t know what I found more uplifting. The lovely review of my novel or the fact that Megan Whalen Turner’s novel comes out next year with Finnikin of Rock, a novel easily inspired by the Attolia books. Thank you.
    Melina Marchetta

  38. handyhunter
    Jun 27, 2009 @ 13:10:39

    Oh, I have such great love for this book. I love how everything ties together without seeming too pat or convenient, and how, ultimately, the story is about love and forgiveness. Because it starts out with what seems like kids taking a school rivalry too seriously and Taylor not wanting to connect with anyone, but unable not to because she can’t help herself, and then the reveal of what started the Territory Wars… so, so, so awesome.

    Also happy to see Finnikin of the Rock will be published in the US next year!

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  40. Bonnie L.
    Jul 06, 2009 @ 09:25:17

    As soon as I read your review I went out and put this book on hold at my library. Last night, at 1:30 a.m. I finished it, crying through the last 100 or so pages. It is now 8 a.m. and I am impatiently waiting for a reasonable hour so that I can call my mother or sister and gush about this book to them. Wow, just, wow. Ms. Marchetta is a consummate word smith.

  41. Janine
    Jul 06, 2009 @ 11:20:23

    Bonnie, I’m so glad you loved the book. Thanks so much for letting me know!

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  43. Cal
    Aug 23, 2009 @ 06:02:25

    There’s something about the friendships and the atmosphere that Melina Marchetta creates in her books which make them really great. She’s one of the few authors whose books always I hate finishing because it means the awesome ride is over. I definitely recommend her other books such as Finnikin of the Rock and Saving Francesca.

  44. Kelly
    Aug 23, 2009 @ 10:59:45

    Finnikin of the Rock doesn’t come out in the US until Feb 2010. Boo! I can’t WAIT though! :-)

  45. Collette
    Aug 23, 2009 @ 20:50:35

    Okay, I just started and finished Jellicoe Road this morning. I started it while my son took a nap and couldn’t stop reading even after he woke up. So, there I am, crying while he’s eating lunch.

    This was an amazing, engrossing, heart-wrenching yet hopeful book that sucked me in from the very beginning. At the end, I had to stop reading a couple times because I was crying so hard. I can’t really believe that her writing was so affecting that I had to do that–let alone do it more than once. (My poor son–he’s 2 and he didn’t know quite what to think but we both lived through it.)

    I had been putting off reading it for a couple of weeks because I was afraid it would be emotionally exhausting. It was, but in a really good way. And I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. It’s a library book but I think I’m going to have to purchase it, if only to loan it out.

    ETA: I just checked Amazon and it’s bargain priced right now at less than $8.

  46. Janine
    Aug 23, 2009 @ 21:53:02

    @Cal & Kelly,

    I can’t wait for Finnikin of the Rock also.

    @Collette:

    It sounds like you had a similar reading experience to mine! I’m so glad you enjoyed (though that word seems too mild for this book) Jellicoe Road also. It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

  47. MaryK
    Nov 21, 2009 @ 22:36:07

    One of the Amazon reviews says that Jellicoe Road is a “shortened version” of the original Australian edition. I can’t find any other mention of a revision though. Do you know anything about it?

  48. Janine
    Nov 22, 2009 @ 01:52:37

    @MaryK: I think I saw or heard that the original edition published in Australia was called On the Jellicoe Road. I also saw a post by the book’s American editor somewhere, so I knew it had been edited for publication in the U.S. I have the impression, though, I may be wrong, that that’s pretty standard, but I did not know that the Australian edition was longer. I have only read the American edition (which I loved) so I can’t say which one is better.

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  52. Alyssa
    Mar 15, 2011 @ 16:14:44

    I actually feel the same way. I’ve been caught in a reading funk lately and Marchetta is one of three authors the only I want to read from. This is slowly killing me – I have so many other books I have to read. I’ve picked up other ones, too, just like you. I couldn’t get into it. Why oh WHY was this book so beautiful?

  53. Maggie
    May 19, 2011 @ 20:43:29

    This book is AMAZING! I read it twice last year. I don’t have the words to describe how good it is. In my opinion, it’s better than Looking for Alibrandi. It’s just exquisite.

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