Book review: Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli (Spoiler Free)

I discovered Leah on the Offbeat the same way many people did: through Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Simon vs. is such an amazing book, I devoured it in two days, and immediately followed the author, Becky Albertalli, on all social media accounts. I was definitely planning on reading Leah on the Offbeat – a story with an overweight bisexual female protagonist was something that I, as a bisexual overweight woman, was desperate to read. But with university deadlines and exams looming, I wasn’t in a mad rush to read it. It was only through a preorder offer that I was made to preorder it – if you preordered the book you got a free signed postcard from Becky Albertalli, with a drawing of a scene of the book on it. And I’m so glad I preordered it.


I devoured this book in the same way that I devoured Simon Vs., sitting in bed and not moving on the promise of just reading one more chapter. The characters all develop from where they were at the ending of Simon Vs., going through the stresses of senior year and the threat of change that is graduating and going to college. There are so many romantic moments where I squealed (minor spoiler, but Bram and Simon promposal, anyone?), including one moment where I physically jumped up and down because it was too perfect and cute. And you have to understand, I hate physical exertion – the book is just that good.

I love Albertalli’s ability to write such a diverse range of characters with different experiences as well – Leah is bi, but her experience of her sexuality is not the same as other bi characters within the story, which is brilliant to see. There’s also examples of incidental representation of LGBTQ+ identities peppered throughout, such as a gender nonbinary character who uses they/them pronouns that Leah and Abby meet on their Spring Break trip to visit UGA. None of it feels forced, it just feels like a true representation of the world.

The thing that really set the tone for the book is the dedication at the start:

‘For the readers who knew something was up, even when I didn’t’

Becky Albertalli has spoken candidly about not realising that Leah was bisexual before readers responded to Simon Vs. talking about Leah’s bisexuality – she didn’t write Leah as a straight character, but she didn’t deliberately write her as a bi character, either. She’s said that she knew that if she were to write a third book in the Simonverse, it would be about Leah, so seeing this side of her that the readers saw was a great way to explore Leah’s character.
Some people have criticised this book, saying that they found Leah an annoying character that they couldn’t relate to all of the time, and there were things that she said or did that were aggravating to them. Whilst I understand this criticism, I liked this part of Leah – she’s not a perfect person, she’s just graduating high school, she’s 18 and still figuring out how the world works and how she fits into it. This is what makes her experience feel like an authentic teenage experience. A lot of the struggle she goes through in the book is figuring out how she fits in to the world – she has herself sussed out, but her place in the world is a little harder to find, especially when the world she knows is changing so rapidly. There were moments when I didn’t agree with Leah, especially in some of the things she says to Abby when they have a fight, and the fact that these things didn’t get resolved and Leah didn’t apologise for them, whilst somewhat frustrating, showed that Leah is human. She’s not a finished person (if such a thing is ever achievable) and it shows.
This book is an amazing ending to the Simonverse, I love it and I know I will be rereading it many times. I really hope the “trend” of representation seen within this book and other YA currently being published is something that is here to stay.

Rating: 4/5

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The benefits of journaling

The other day Daniel J Layton uploaded a video in association with Penguin Platform on their YouTube channel about how great journaling is for your mental health. I’ve been thinking about this for a while – it was something that was recommended to me by a counsellor for my mental health a while back, and I recommend it to everyone because it has helped me so much, so I thought I would share my thoughts on the matter.

I’ve written a diary for years – I used to pretend to write by scribbling a pen over paper in squiggly lines before I could even write, and I’ve had my fair share of countless products marketed as secret diaries and journals over the years. They weren’t often very successful though – I would lose the key to the padlock keeping them shut (I will never know what seven year old me really thought about her crushes), or my password journal would run out of batteries and keep me locked out, or I would simply get bored and stop. One year, when I was about 8 or 9, my mum made my brother and me keep daily diaries over the course of the summer holiday, and in late August, I wrote ‘I read through my diary today. It’s pretty boring.’ That one sentence pretty much sums up my early experience with journaling.

When I was in my first year of secondary school in 2010, I tried to make it my New Year’s resolution to write in my diary more, mainly as a way to remember things later in life. And I did; I wrote sporadic entries over the course of years seven to twelve. I used it when I was happy to record great things that had happened, and when I was sad, angry, or upset to vent my feelings and work through them. The physical action of writing things down really helped me work through what I was experiencing, and process my feelings.

I reached a real low point in my mental health around year twelve, going through the stresses of the IB and University expectations from the school I was at, and I went to a counsellor for a while. She asked if I wrote in a diary, and if I found that it helped, and I said that yes, I did, and that it did help. She recommended that I write every night, and at the very least, just write one positive thing that had happened to me during the day, and if I was writing anything else, to finish with a positive thing. It could be something nice that someone said to me, that someone did for me, or just a nice experience that I had that made me feel good. Ever since then, I have written a journal entry every night, which means I’ve been daily journaling for three and a half years now, and the difference it has made to my mental health is astounding.

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These five notebooks are full of nothing but my thoughts, which is kind of crazy to consider

It’s by no means been a cure for my mental health issues – nothing really is a full cure – but it has helped me so much. I have a much more positive outlook now, and I sleep far easier having vented my feelings on paper. A few times, when I’ve been unable to write on paper for whatever reason, I’ve typed it on my phone, which doesn’t have quite the same effect for me, but it does still help. Having something that takes 100% of my attention, away from a screen with constant notifications distracting me, and facilitates me processing the events of the day in my own time, is invaluable to me. And now I have a record of every day of the past three and a half years of my life. I’ve started using my journals as scrapbooks as well, sticking in tickets and pictures, which makes it so nice to look back through, especially to look at the positive events of each day.

Now, I need to acknowledge that I am in the very fortunate position of liking to write. I have always liked to write, and given my degree subject and hopes for the future, I hope I always will. So journaling, whilst a challenge in routine, was not necessarily a challenge in task for me. I’m well aware that some people will hate journaling, they’ll write two words and set fire to their notebook, never to write another word again. But this is just a note to say give it a go, if you haven’t already. You don’t have to go as hard as I do, maybe try once a week, if that’s more your speed. But whatever you do, give it a try. You might like it.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell: my favourite books

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is a book I had to buy as soon as I heard about it. Having read Fangirl, which was my inspiration for studying creative writing at university, I was invested in the outcome of Baz and Simon’s final year at school.

I love that this book came about not as a way to write what Cath, the protagonist of Fangirl, imagined the end of Simon and Baz’s story to be, nor as what the fictional author of original story writes after the events of Fangirl. Instead, Rowell has stated that she was intrigued by these characters and their stories, and that’s what compelled her to write Carry On. And this shines through in her writing, which I found difficult to stop reading.

Carry On was Rowell’s first foray into fantasy writing, and in a sense, it shows. The scenario and characters seem somewhat derivitave of the Harry Potter series, but when read in the context of Fangirl, this makes sense. Books that reference popular culture soon become outdated, (and although I don’t know for sure I would imagine come with all sorts of copyright issues), so by creating a fake series within the world of Fangirl, the idea of the world is recognisable to a contemporary audience, but the book is not as dated as it would otherwise be. There are clear differences that do set Rowell’s work aside from Harry Potter, but these largely feature as the narrative develops, in the characters’ motivations and the plot twists.

One key area in which Carry On differs from the Harry Potter series quite obviously is in the LGBTQ+ representation. Baz identifies as queer from the first chapter, and Simon finds himself having feelings towards Baz the more time he spends with him. Simon and Baz’s same sex attraction is explored well, and it is not their entire identities. Spoiler alert, but they also have a happy ending, which is delightfully refreshing. As critics such as Karen Coats and Robert Bittner have noted, Young Adult fiction is a source of relationship, sexuality, and sex education for young people who feel otherwise embarrassed to discuss their own experiences as queer and questioning young adults. Normalising the experiences of gay/bi guys through two very different characters, Simon and Baz, who happen to both be attracted to guys but define themselves and negotiate their own sexualities in different ways, is so helpful in negotiating this issue.

As a fantasy debut and what is essentially fanfiction, Carry On is a lovely and important story, and I can’t wait to read any other fantasy that Rainbow Rowell produces. I am currently enjoying the run of the comic book series Runaways that she is writing, with Kris Anka illustrating, and would recommend that for anyone who enjoyed Carry On.

 

The furiosity of butterflies

there’s this feeling I can’t get rid of,

i can’t out run it,

can’t escape it

it shakes me to my core.

sometimes

i think it may have disappeared

i relax, breathe, enjoy

but it returns all too soon.

the clenching,

the writhing,

the fear,

tangling its way through my head

no matter how much I meditate

or run

or talk

or do anything that you would-be experts

seem to think I should do,

tell me to do,

it remains.

the only constant that I can be sure of.

it may leave me for a day,

at times, a week

but it will certainly

always

return.

Sympathy for the animal sidekick

A continuation of U A Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Not my best side’

It’s all very well, this

virgin saving, but I always end up questioning

what’s in it for me?

The girl gets saved, the dragon dies,

this guy on my back, wearing the entire armoury (not realising,

had the dragon breathed fire,

as is traditional dragon behaviour,

he would have been cooked alive

like a jacket potato in tin foil)

gets the girl and the fame,

and all I get is a scratch under the chin,

a carrot, and another painting to add

to my slowly growing collection

in the stables. Hardly seems fair

when without me, he wouldn’t have

got anywhere in the first place,

especially on those matchstick legs.

 

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Blizzard

Drifting crystals shimmer under street-light,
boots pull through the grey white sand.
The hole, ignored in November,
leaves February’s toes unfeeling.
Red hot ice forms fingers in unravelling mittens,
wind attacks the hood, flake shards spiking behind plastic frames.
Time slows, quiets, before puddles form on doorsteps.

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman: My Favourite Books

The first time I remember hearing about Call Me By Your Name was when one of my friends was telling me about some of the controversy surrounding it on Twitter after the announcement that the book was being made into a film. Shortly after, the same friend read the book in an inordinately short amount of time, and was begging everyone she knew to read it. I put it off, despite being intent to read the book before the film came out (which I didn’t manage to do, but due to the film’s very limited release in the UK I wouldn’t have been able to go and see it in the cinema anyway), and finally got around to reading it in December of last year.

The novel follows Elio, a teenage boy at the novel’s start, and how his life is changed when Oliver comes to stay at his family home over the summer. It’s a coming-of-age romance story, heartbreaking and beautiful.

I loved this book from start to finish. Every single sentence seemed so well constructed, so carefully thought out, that I wanted to stop reading every five minutes so as to savour my experience of the reading this book for the first time for as long as possible. Aciman uses the first person perspective in such a way that reading the book feels like Elio is talking to you personally, not just telling a story to the world, but revealing himself intimately (both emotionally any physically…) to the reader. The ambiguity of the ending of the novel feels like the only ending that it could naturally have, leaving the reader to decide how Elio and Oliver’s relationship ends.

This book is beautifully evocative, and upon finishing it I wanted to read it over and over again until it was burned onto the back of my eyelids. If it has somehow passed you buy (even though the film has been nominated for so many awards this season), it’s my turn to beg you to read it, and experience this story first hand.

The Staircase

The edge of the carpet is fraying,

peeling up – it will soon be nothing.

it used to hold such fun,

bum slides down, crawls up

but now it only holds stains.

The house is no longer yours,

but the bannisters bear your fingerprints,

marks from a time when you were carried

on the shoulders of your father,

from back when your mother knew your name.

Boxes sit at the bottom of the staircase,

but you feel the need to sit here a while,

take it all in,

before you had this house over to new memory makers.

Installment in the Turbine Hall of the Tate

A single red ball

rolls to stop.

It sits alone for a while,

some people come and look at it

and slowly, it gains friends,

balls of all different colours joining it

piling up, spilling out,

each one filled with a secret to be learnt

only by inquisitive strangers,

secrets detached,

the weight released from their bearers,

left floating in the void.

A problem shared is a problem halved;

these secrets become millionths of the size

they used to embody to their bearers,

and minor curiosities for visitors.

 

Some of them come back to visit,

curious to see what the others have shared.

They never find their own secrets

and indeed, never remember them.

They are lost in a sea of regrets and things better left unsaid.

 

The balls are recycled, after it’s all over,

forming pens, bottles, all manner of things,

their secrets hidden forever.

 

The first red ball returns

to the pocket of its creator,

becoming a memento of when things so trivial

carried more significance.

Lycanthropuppy

Connie looked up at her two parents, trying to hear what they were muttering about. Normally, it wouldn’t bother her – she knew that adults often had conversations that kids like her weren’t supposed to be privy to – but the way they kept looking over at her had piqued her curiosity.

‘I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be able to keep her inside whenever there’s a full moon, Lisa!’

‘I just don’t think she’s ready-’

‘We can supervise her in the garden, that’s how my parents helped me my first time.’

‘Are we going to play in the garden?’ Connie started to bounce with excitement, thinking of the trampoline and how much more fun it would be to bounce in the dark than during the day.

Her mother sighed. ‘Yes, sweetie, we are. Shall we get some warm clothes on?’

Connie was more willing to cooperate than she ever had been. She took the stairs at a sprint and got changed within a record time. Her mother had picked out some of the dirtier clothes that Connie didn’t really like anymore for her to wear, but the prospect of playing outside after dark had left her too excited to complain.

When she came downstairs, Connie’s dad was already waiting by the back door. ‘You ready, sweetie?’

Connie nodded, her bunches swinging back and forth against her neck.

‘Remember, whatever you do, don’t fight it.’ Her dad’s words confused her, but she thought that, like most things that she didn’t understand, they would soon make sense.

Her mum’s hands pinched her shoulders as her dad opened the curtains, and then the door. The cold January air rushed in, and Connie rushed out of the door to meet it. She was halfway across the garden before she realised that her parents weren’t next to her. She turned around to try and find them, but they were nowhere to be found.

In their place stood two wolves that barely fitted through the door, their eyes kind and their fur thick across their back. Connie was mesmerised. The bigger one had eyes the colour of her mum’s eyes, the same bright blue as Connie’s, and its fur shone chestnut in the moonlight. The slightly smaller one had her dad’s hazel eyes, and its coat was a dark brown peppered with grey.

She heard her mother’s voice, although the wolf’s mouth didn’t move. Remember what your dad said, Connie, don’t fight it.

Fight what? was all Connie had a chance to think before she felt an odd pain in her arm. She looked down to see that it was warping and sprouting hair, and as she watched, the pain spread through her body, causing her to fall to all fours. She tried to scream for help, but her tongue lolled in her mouth, too big for the tiny space. She curled up where she had fallen on the ground and began to cry, the sound coming from her totally alien.

The pain stopped, and she opened her eyes and sat up. Everything was in a greyscale; she couldn’t see any of the fun colours of the plastic windmill or the trampoline. It was only then that she realised that she wasn’t even sitting up, she was leaning on her hands like a dog. She tried to lift up her arms in front of her face to look at them and couldn’t get them any further than parallel with the ground. She looked down and saw that they were covered with fur, claws and paws where her hands used to be. Connie began to panic.

I know it’s scary, sweetie, but don’t be scared, we’re here.

Her father’s voice in her head did nothing to stop her panicking, and she tried to stand up, wobbling on all fours. She tried to speak again and heard a yap. Her heart started racing as she stumbled across the garden. Everything was taller than she was, and she couldn’t see the wolves anymore.

Connie started to run, quickly adapting to the four legs rather than the two she was used to. She fell over the hose pipe, landing on her back and letting out a squeak.

Stop running, Connie, let us help you.

She could no longer remember who Connie was, or who the voice belonged to that was in her head. She wriggled her way back to standing, and made a break for the gap that she could see in the fence, finding that more appealing than anything that this garden had to offer.

Connie, no!

She felt a scratch against the back of her neck, but the hole in the fence seemed to be perfectly shaped for her, and she left whatever had scratched her behind.

I told you she wasn’t ready!

Stop arguing and get her back!

The argument faded out as she bounded underneath fast moving cars that darted above her. Some of them swerved, some of them slowed, and some of them ran straight at her, but somehow she made it to the other side of the road unscathed.

Without warning, her nose seemed to open, and she felt as though she were standing in the middle of a bed of flowers, all of the smells so interesting, and so different from one another. She had just picked one to follow, one that smelt of freshly baked cookies, when she felt hands slip around her belly and lift her skywards. She snarled and tried to escape from the hands, but her arms and legs were now useless, and her neck wasn’t long enough for her to bite the hands. She settled for yapping, and yapped as she was put in the back of a car, yapped as the car moved to wherever it was going, and yapped as she was taken out. She could hear a conversation going on between the owner of the hands around her and the person standing opposite her, who smelled like something she couldn’t distinguish but wanted to eat very badly.

The hands cupped around her entire body as they started moving again. She wriggled as much as she could, intrigued by all of the different smells drifting past her nose and curious about all of the other dogs in this place.

She was placed down on a blanket. Two metal bowls were placed in front of her, one with food in it, and one with water in it, and she attacked both with equal vigour. The owner of the hands patted her on the head and stroked her as she ate, saying things that she couldn’t make out.

As soon as the owner of the hands left, she looked around to see that she was in a cage. She yowled, unable to protest the entrapment in any other way. Using her paws did nothing, and she found her head and her teeth to be of little use. She fell asleep with her paw against the cage, too tired to carry on.

When Connie woke up, she was completely naked, and very cold. She couldn’t remember why she was in a cage, or why she was surrounded by dogs, or why her entire body ached. She started to cry, a real wail that made the dogs around her restless. Their barks and yowls only made Connie cry more.

‘I want my mummy,’ she cried, head on the blanket that did nothing to warm the cold cement floor.

‘Jack! I found her!’

Connie looked up to see her mother, dirty and haggard, running towards her, a bundle of fabric in hand. ‘Mummy!’ she squealed, standing up and jumping over the tiny cage barriers.

Her mother wrapped a blanket around her and then squeezed her in a tight hug. ‘Don’t you ever run off like that again, okay?’

‘Okay,’ she said, her voice muffled by her mother’s fleece. She was unsure of exactly what she had done, but flashes of the night’s adventures were coming back to her now.

‘I’m so sorry, Georgie brought her in last night, and we didn’t even think. Good to know you’re showing her the ropes now though.’ The woman behind Connie’s father had wet hair and was wearing clothes that made it clear that she’d got dressed in the dark in a rush. Connie felt sheepish at the sight of her, and turned her head back into her mother’s coat.

‘We’ll get her out of here, sorry for the trouble. Thank you for looking after her.’

‘No problem at all.’

The car ride back home was quiet, her mother focused on the road and her father staring out the window. Connie tried to stay awake, but her eyes drooped as the road wound back to her home. Once home, Connie’s mother took Connie up to have a bath and get some clean clothes on, still silent.

The silence was only broken once all three of them were sitting around the table, eating their breakfasts.

‘Now Connie, you have a month before the next full moon. Next time, no running off, okay?’ Her mother’s voice was stern, her eyes showing no sign of tolerance.

Connie nodded as milk from her cereal dribbled down her chin.

‘Okay then, let’s get to work. You have a lot to learn, little pup.’