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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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.

 

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.

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.’

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: My Favourite Books

Of all of my favourite books, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is one I often forget when people ask me about my favourite books. Not that it’s a bad book, or forgetable in any way, but just as a reader of largely fantasy books, or at least books with some sort of supernatural element, Eleanor and Park is somewhat more understated; there’s no magic, nothing out of the ordinary, just a beautifully realistic love story.

I discovered Eleanor and Park after reading another of Rowell’s books, Fangirl, which I also love. As soon as I finished Fangirl, I immediately went to my nearest bookshop and sought out anything else by Rowell, and Eleanor and Park was on a display table. (Briefly taking a tangent, I am loving the new run of Runaways that Rowell has a large part in the writing of, and I would recommend it to anyone, as you don’t have to have read any of the previous Runaways to be able to follow what’s going on. Anyway.).

The book is set in the 1980s, and centres around the two characters of Eleanor and Park. Both of them, typically, don’t quite fit in with the world of high school. Park is half Korean, which makes him an outcast in Omaha, Nebraska, where almost everyone is white, and on top of that, he is obsessed with music and comic books. Eleanor is even more of an outcast, wearing men’s clothing a lot of the time, a little chubby, with a head of bright red hair. Park realises how much of a target Eleanor is for the bullies at their school, and so offers her the seat next to him on the bus. As is to be expected, a relationship blossoms between them.

The novel explores issues of race, class, family, and so much more. At the novel’s open, Eleanor has just returned from a year spent living with her uncle after she was kicked out of her home by her stepfather, who abuses her mother and her siblings. The conflict between Eleanor, and to a lesser extent also her siblings and her mother, and Richie, her stepfather, is central to the story, but amazingly it never errs from realistic throughout the novel. The story, whilst heartbreaking, is firmly rooted in the reality of life for many people, which makes it all the more poingnant.

One of the other things I loved as well was the mystery of the novel’s ending. Leaving a story so open ended is something that I rarely enjoy, but Rowell does it so well that it still feels like a satisfying ending. By the end of the book, you know the characters so well that you know what most likely happened, but you can never be sure. The ending also fits with the reality of the novel – you don’t ever know exactly what’s going to happen in life, and that’s okay, as a lot of the time you just have to go where life takes you.

Everyone who I have leant this book to have told me that they cried reading it, and in my opinion moving people to that extent is a clear signifier of a good book. All of this is why Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park will undoubtebly remain one of my favourite books, quite possibly forever.

 

My favourite books: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was recommended to me by many people before I actually read it. If I’m completely honest, I only got round to it because it was on the reading list for one of my modules this year (it was subsequently removed, much to my dismay, but that’s another story). I don’t know why it took me so much convincing – I love Greek and Roman mythology, I love the Iliad, and I’m always excited to read books with LGBTQ+ representation, and this book ticks all of those boxes. No wonder then that before I had even finished it, it had made it into the list of my favourite books.

This book is just beautiful. I cried throughout the book – I started bookmarking every time the book made me cry, which considering I knew the ending, and how Miller consistently foreshadows the ending through Achilles’ happy arrogance and Patroclus’ reluctant happiness, was a lot. I ran out of post-it-note bookmarks. This, coupled with the gorgeous poetic descriptions of the landscapes and events of the novel, makes it into one of those books I stayed up until 2.30am to finish, at which time I messaged my friend in tears and she immediately knew what I had just finished reading.

I don’t feel that my love of the Iliad was a necessary pre-requisite for reading and loving Miller’s novel either. Most of my friends that have read the book and love it had no idea what was going to happen, giving them a completely different experience of reading the book. Either way, I do not know a single person who has read The Song of Achilles and not enjoyed it.

This book is the book that I always recommend to people without exception when they ask me for book recommendations, so I felt it most remiss not to mention it here on my blog when I have this favourite books series. If you haven’t yet read it, do so. I sincerely promise you that you will love it.

My favourite books: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern 

As I haven’t been able to read many new releases recently owing to my rather extensive university reading lists, I thought I could start a series this week, talking about my favourite books, in both my experience with them and why I love them so much. So this week: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

The Night Circus is the book I say in response to the ‘What is your favourite book?’ question from anyone, and though there are many books I enjoyed and appreciate just as much as The Night Circus, so few people I know have read it that I can’t resist the possibility of telling someone about it so they may read and enjoy it too.

I first read it as a loan from my uncle, who gave it to me as a book he’d read, mildly enjoyed, and thought I might like. I will admit, it took me a while to get into. When I boarded the plane for a family holiday to Barcelona in 2014, I was around 40 pages in. A day and a half into the holiday and I had finished it. I got swept up into the story, invested in every character, unsure of what was going to happen, that I could barely put it down. I have since forced many of my friends to read it, and I still live in hope that the production company that bought the rights will make the film someday.

The premise sounds strange when described, and it is so difficult to describe. There’s a circus that ‘appears without warning’, is only open at night, and disappears again. The Circus is in fact a stage for a duel between Marcus and Celia, both bound at birth to be engaged in a duel of magic until one of them wins. And every character within the Circus has a role to play.

One of the key reasons I love this book so much is its characters. You care about every single one, no matter how many are introduced as the story progresses. I think one of the reasons this is is Morgenstern’s masterful use of a non-chronological narrative – the story leaps forwards and backwards in time, with headings on each chapter to tell you where and when you are each time. Through this, you see the world of the circus introduced to the different characters, and see how they fit it in with the wider narrative.

The premise of the novel seemed so unique to me as well. The idea of young and old arguing as to whose way is better is obviously ages old, but the framing of the Night Circus, open only for a few days, arriving unannounced, was just so enticing. As a reader, you are like one of the many normal visitors to the circus who are described in a few vague chapters dotted throughout the novel. You walk around with the other people, admiring these things that you could never dream of appearing so vividly in front of your eyes as Morgenstern’s words come to life.

The ending of the book also worked really well – it did not feel forced, it was very satisfying, and it still left me in tears.

The Night Circus is almost as magical as its namesake circus is itself, and that’s why it remains firmly in my list of my favourite books.

All That She Can See by Carrie Hope Fletcher: a novel that needed five minutes more in the oven

Carrie Hope Fletcher is not someone who shies away from hard work. It is clear in everything she does, working in theatre in lead roles in many productions, and making vlogs for her channel ItsWayPastMyBedTime on YouTube. It shows in her fans – she has amassed over six hundred thousand subscribers over her years on YouTube, and has performed in Les Miserables as Eponine, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as Truly Scrumptious, and is currently in the Addams Family playing Wednesday Addams. On top of this, she has written three books, All that She Can See being her second novel and third book, all whilst juggling everything else that life is throwing at her. As a result, I was more than excited to read this book, as the passion she had shown for it led me to believe that the same high-level performance would shine through in this aspect of her career as well.

Unfortunately, it fell just short.

All that She Can See centres around Cherry Redgrave, a woman who can see people’s bad feelings as monsters that follow them everywhere, growing when the feelings increase and shrinking when the feelings lessen. Cherry has been able to see these feelings since she was born, and using this power she bakes things containing the good feelings that people need to counteract the bad.

The book is an easy read – the plot is compelling, and I read it on holiday within a few days. I cared about the protagonist, Cherry, and what happened to her. The premise is fantastic, and Fletcher explores it in a very interesting way, through both Cherry and the other characters who have the same and similar powers as her. There are so many characters, all with individual lives and backstories, clearly carefully thought through by Fletcher.

The flaws with the book seem to come with untidy editing. The prologue and the first chapter seem surplus to requirements, as everything that is revealed within it is explained again when Cherry reaches Portsmouth, where the main portion of the novel is set. The characters who are Cherry’s ‘usuals’ are explained perfectly through their actions once Cherry reaches Portsmouth in the main portion of the novel, so the first chapter describing them makes it seem like Fletcher doesn’t have the confidence in her writing later in the novel, which she should. Also, once it gets to the main action of the novel featuring these characters, it doesn’t feel like there is enough time to have these characters to become ‘usuals’, and some of the things mentioned – such as Sally giving Cherry’s customers tarot card readings – seem to be forgotten. These characters being set up at the start of the novel, combined with the tone that Fletcher adopts in the portion of the novel between the first chapter and the sixth chapter, makes the action that takes place before Cherry arrives in Portsmouth read like backstory that is just being told rather than shown to us. Cherry’s backstory is interesting, so it strikes me as odd that it is almost dismissed due to this.

It also seemed that the novel could have done with proofreading. I was adding in commas as I read the book to make it make sense, and there is a character mentioned in the ‘usuals’ chapter in the list of everyone – Orla – who is not mentioned previously as all the other characters are to tell the reader why they have the ‘Meddlums’ (as the feelings are dubbed) that they do. This is a simple issue that should have been picked up in proofreading, but somehow it wasn’t, which really brings you out of the story as you’re trying to get into it. Granted, it is a first edition, and mistakes are made in first editions that can then be rectified later on, but these seem too numerous to ignore.

Fletcher’s tone comes across as quite preachy at times, but this seems to be more down to the issue of not having faith in her readers – an issue that I know many writers suffer from, as they want to get their point over very clearly. For example, when Cherry is talking to two women described as ‘charlatans’, Fletcher feels the need to specify that ‘”respect your elders” was something Cherry had been taught very early on in life, but as she grew up, she realised respect wasn’t something to be earned and sometimes wasn’t relevant to age or experience’. As this is surplus to requirements, it comes across as Fletcher using her novel to make a point to the reader, which is quite strange in a novel, and is quite disconcerting to a reader, as it almost interrupts the action of the novel.

The conversations of the novel also seem quite unnatural. It seems that the steps in conversations are lost, so characters are spilling their guts after not having known each other for very long. It is hard to feel compassion for all of the characters when they don’t behave like real people. A lot of characters with substantial depth have been fit into this novel, and as soon as they are introduced, you find out everything about them and their life. In my opinion, the book would have benefitted from either having less of these characters, or revealing the aspects of these characters gradually.

The action also seems slightly rushed, but less so – a lot does happen in not very many pages. More time could have been taken over Cherry’s early life, and the ending is incredibly vague, which may have been deliberate, but comes across to me as almost a cop out, not wanting to work out how Cherry gets out of the situation she is left in at the end of the novel. The book could have benefitted from being around one hundred or so pages longer, which I think would have allowed for the natural character development and the natural progression of dialogue and action that I feel this novel is somewhat lacking.

The thing I was most disappointed with was that all of these issues could have been sorted with another edit, so the main impression that I got of the novel was that it was rushed. Another careful edit could have taken this book from alright to amazing.

Whilst when considered in the context of the busy life that Fletcher is leading, the novel is amazing, when taken alone, it falters, and could have done with a little longer and a little more focus on it to achieve the great novel that I know Carrie Hope Fletcher is more than capable of.

Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer: Riordan’s humour and wit take on the Norse gods

When my mum asked me several years ago if I wanted to go and see a film directed by the same director that directed one of the Harry Potter films, featuring Greek mythology (a topic I had loved for years), I jumped at the chance. As soon as I came out of the screening of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, I realised I had to buy the book. Once I had read it, I disowned the film of course, seeing how it paled in comparison to the book (and I don’t mean in a pretentious ‘the-book-is-always-better’ kind of way, I mean it in the sense that they took a great concept and storyline and twisted it into a shadow of its former self). I loved the original Percy Jackson series, I loved the Heroes of Olympus series, and so Rick Riordan secured himself in my list of authors whose every book I read.

I have read the first book by Riordan in the Kane Chronicles, which are based around the Egyptian gods, and didn’t love it as much as I didn’t feel attached to the characters. Despite having heard good things about Riordan’s take on the Norse gods, I was slightly dubious when it came to Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer. I needn’t have been.

From the opening, I loved this book. Riordan creates another sarcastic, funny protagonist, and yet somehow Magnus is different enough from Percy that he doesn’t just seem like a copy of the character that so many readers know and love. Riordan retains the hilarious chapter titles that made me laugh out loud just flicking through the contents page, all as original as the ones seen throughout his previous books. There is a great connection to the Percy Jackson series in that, as can be guessed from Magnus’ surname being Chase, he is the cousin of Annabeth Chase, Percy’s girlfriend. This link could have felt forced and an attempt to endear the readers to Magnus, but instead it felt very natural and worked well.

I was slightly nervous that I would not understand this book as well due to not knowing much about the Norse gods, but instead the book serves as a great introduction to them. With a glossary of terms and important figures in the back, and you learning everything along with Magnus, it is very easy to pick up on Norse mythology. A lot of the traditional mythology is interspersed with modern twists – for example, one of the highlights of the novel for me was Thor’s use of his hammer, Mjölnir, to watch tv shows such as Game of Thrones.

One of the other great things about this book is that there is explicit representation. The Valkyrie who saves Magnus, called Sam, is a Muslim teenage girl with a majic hijab that can camoflauge up to two people at a time, and through her character various topics, including arranged marriage and Islamophobia, are explored. One of Magnus’ two protectors, Hearth, is a deaf elf, and his deafness is the only reason that the characters survive the final battle of the book. The characterisation within this book generally speaking as well is fantastic, with a vast array of unique and interesting characters, including a talking sword and two talking goats, and I am left interested to know how these characters develop as the series continues.

With the first chapter of the sequel that was in my copy of the book, I am very intrigued to read the next installment in this series, and any more than follow, and see how Riordan further develops this world that he has created.

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: brilliant inside and out

I had heard about The Girl of Ink and Stars many times from many people before I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave – it was Children’s Book of the Month not once but twice at Waterstones, (later going on to win Children’s Book of the Year), was a Financial Times Book of the Year, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Award, and was shortlisted for both the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award. Not only that, but many people I trust for book recommendations and follow online, such as Carrie Hope Fletcher on YouTube, read it and recommended it. And I, as an aspiring young adult author, really wanted to read it.

Initially, many other books got in my way. Naturally, studying an English and Creative Writing degree, I had a lot of poems, novels, short stories, and plays to read for my course, and these obviously took precedence. Everytime I walked into my local Waterstones, there was a lovely display of copies of the book, in windows or on the tables, and I desparately wanted to pick up a copy, but just… didn’t.

But then I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She came to do a guest lecture at my university about writing “children’s” fiction was inspiring, especially for someone like me who sits working on my young adult novel whilst my friends work on amazing pieces that sit nicely under the label of ‘literary fiction’. She was incredibly lovely, no pretenses that the process was easy as she projected the word counts of her numerous drafts to show how the first draft was never the finished product, frank talk about the effect of mental illness on her writing process and how she battled through it, and information about the way things are done publishing-wise either side of the pond. She also discussed with us how ridiculous it is that some books are considered better than others due to their genre, a sentiment I very much share. Needless to say, The Girl of Ink and Stars jumped up my reading list, and I bought a copy almost immediately. And I am so glad I did.

The first thing that amazed me was the beauty of the whole book. The cover itself is gorgeous, but the pages themselves are where the true amazement lies. Each page is decorated like a map in keeping with the protagonist Isabella’s dreams and her father’s job as a cartographer. The result is that every page feels like a step on the journey that the characters undertake, mapping out the unknown of their island. I’ve never seen pages like it, and I urge you to pick up the book if only to see the pages.

The only potential issue with a gorgeous cover is that sometimes the contents don’t quite live up to their presentation.

This book definitely did not have that issue.

The story centres around the character of Isabella, who volunteers to guide a search for her friend after she gets lost in what the people of her village call ‘The Forgotten Territories’. More than eager to explore the island and chart it on a map, following in the footsteps of her father, a cartographer, she ventures in to the Forgotten Territories with the search party, and finds herself facing a lot more trouble than she initially expected.

The exposition of the story is slow and subtle, revealing a world that is not too dissimilar from our own – after all, Kiran Millwood Hargrave does say that the places in all of her novels are real places, but they obviously feature some slight embellishments. The relationships between the characters are great – I particularly enjoyed seeing the friendship between Isabella and Lupe, as a focus on friendship rather than romance is so refreshing to see. The mythic elements were really interesting, and tied well into the rest of the plot.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I feel it could have been a little longer. As it was, at just over 200 pages, I felt the world wasn’t explored to its full potential. I would love to have seen adventures spanning over the whole island in depth, as there are some villages displayed on the map that are barely visited, only for a page or two, and some that are not visited at all. The world of the book was so great, it just seemed a shame to leave it at what felt almost like the bare minimum exploration, especially when the protagonist talks about how much she wants to explore the entire island of Joya throughout the novel.

Overall,  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy and adventure, and wants to read something refreshing.