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.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman: My favourite books

Stardust is one of those books of which I watched the film before I read it – in fact, I watched the film before I even knew there was a book. It took me some time to even put the book with the film, which is quite embarrassing, but as my teacher lent me a copy in year six (our library was woefully lacking at the time), I was lucky, as everyone I told about it was just as excited as I was. I am obsessed with the world of this book – just last year, I purchased a charity pin from the RSPB that is in the shape of a snowdrop in reference to this book, and I wear it whenever I can.

If you’re ever looking for a stellar example of fantasy fiction set partially within our world, Stardust is the book for you. Starting in the village of Wall, the narrative follows the adventure of one boy – Tristan – as he crosses the wall to retrieve a fallen star for Victoria, the woman he thinks that he’s in love with. He soon discovers that stars are actually people, and an adventure to get the star, who goes by the name Yvain, back to give to Victoria ensues. Combined with this is the quest of a group of three witches to get the star, as  they have to eat hearts of stars to stay alive, beautiful, and powerful, and the story of seven brothers fighting for the throne after their father followed the laws of succession in their royal family, and threw a necklace with a large gemstone on it out of the window. None of the story lines ever become confusing, and they reach a great conclusion that brings all of them together. The world beyond the wall is almost palpable, the aspects fit together to form a world that seems like it couldn’t be the product of one person’s brain.

I put down this book and immediately looked up Gaiman’s other books, even at the age of 11. My love for this book, and Neil Gaiman’s stories in general, has not waned since I read the first few pages. If you ever want to read a feel good fantasy book that must have taken so many charts and balls of yarn in its complexity, but takes no effort on your part to enjoy, read Stardust. And even if not, please just read Stardust anyway. I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed.

 

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: His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman 

Something happened this week that I am very excited about: Phillip Pullman released a book in the same universe as one of my favourite book series, the His Dark Materials trilogy. La Belle Sauvage is described as not a prequel, or a sequel, but rather an equal, taking place at the same time as the events of the series. The excitement I feel to read it reminded me of how much I love the original trilogy.

I, like many others I know, was first introduced to the Phillip Pullman trilogy through the film the Golden Compass. I loved it, fantasy is one of my favourite genres, and the universe felt so different, so similar to the world that I knew and yet so magical at the same time. I almost immediately checked the Northern Lights out of my local library, and read it within a week. It was so much better than the film (not in a snobbish way, in the sense that they changed some major plot points and removed some elements to market the film more towards children) the world far richer, the characters more developed, and the plot so natural and yet very unpredictable.

I never normally read books in a series one after the other, as I generally find it somewhat spoils my enjoyment of them – too much of a good thing, in a sense. I made this mistake with the Subtle Knife, choosing to read it almost immediately after finished the Northern Lights. I struggled with it for a bit, had to put it down for a while. Once I came back to it, I enjoyed it far more, although it still remains my least favourite of the three in the series.

The final book in the series, the Amber Spyglass, felt like the perfect finale to the series. The series had gradually built to that point, and taking the start of the Northern Lights and the end of the Amber Spyglass in isolation would leave you completely unsure if they were even from the same series, but the progression throughout the series goes as a perfect pace, and it all fits into place. I can still cry thinking about Will and Lyra’s annual tradition.

This book series remains firmly in my favourites, and I am so excited to read the latest instalment – and, after writing this, I want to reread the whole of the original series!

My favourite books: 1984 by George Orwell

Like many people, I had heard of 1984 long before I read it. It was due to it’s reputation as a classic dystopian novel that I decided to read it, largely because I wanted to do my Extended Essay for my IB on dystopian literature, comparing the graphic novel V for Vendetta with a novel to look at the differences in presentations of themes in graphic novels and novels. I chose to read 1984 because not only is it the classic, but also because V for Vendetta has been compared to it a lot by critics, and Alan Moore himself has said that he took a large amount of inspiration from 1984 when writing V for Vendetta.

I have to say, I found the book initially slow to get into. Without a clear direction of narrative like I was used to, it didn’t immediately grab my attention. However, I soon found myself halfway through, having read for several hours, with no intention of putting the book down with any haste. I also found it really enjoyable to re-read, which is something I don’t find with many books. In fact, re-reading it was almost more enjoyable for me than reading it the first time, as knowing what was going to happen made the story all the more poignant in a way.

What makes me love this book so much is the reality of it. Unlike many dystopias we see nowadays, (for example The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins) it is a terrifyingly possible future. There’s a logic to how the world developed to get to the point it’s at in the novel, which is what Orwell intended, obviously, so it feels like so much more than just a story.

The way Orwell builds this world as well is so chilling. There’s a reason that the opening line, ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ is known by so many people. From that line alone, the eerie atmosphere of the novel is set. It only builds from there, and by the end of the first page I could imagine this world in all sorts of detail that Orwell hasn’t even touched on from the few things that he has.

It’s also interesting the way I started off with sympathy for Winston, the protagonist, and root for him more and more as the novel goes on, but then ended up more disappointed in him than saddened for him. There’s so much hope, and it’s all crushed for the reader and for Winston, which I did not expect at all with the way the novel was written leading up to that point.

I find the very fact that writing this blog post makes me want to go and re-read 1984 clear evidence to the fact that this novel is more than deserving of its iconic status, both to me and in the world at large.

Undercover Princess by Connie Glynn: A magical debut

I was lucky enough this summer to get to go to the YouTube convention Summer in the City in London, and among the awesome panels and the fabulous performances over the weekend, I managed to bag myself a free proof copy of Connie Glynn’s book Undercover Princess, the first in the Rosewood Chronicles series. I have been a fan of Connie’s YouTube channel – Noodlerella – for a while, and after seeing a reading of her book and hearing her talk about the process of writing the book, I was really excited to read it. And Glynn did not disappoint.

The novel centres around the character of Lottie Pumpkin, who arrives at a new school to start year 10 and finds that everyone at the school believes that she is the undercover princess from Maradova, despite the fact that the undercover princess is in fact her roommate.

The plot of the novel is very fresh and original, and differentiates itself well from the other ‘school’ books that are all too easy to find in the Young Adult section of any bookshop. One way in which this is done is through Lottie starting in year ten, rather than starting at the start of year seven. I found that the novel skipped events that I would have considered essential to a book about a person’s school life, but in missing these events out, although it seems initially strange, the book is transformed from a book about a student at school to a story about a character that happens to be set at a school.

The language and descriptions of this novel are fantastic, as is the characterisation. When Glynn signed my copy of the novel at Summer in the City, she said to let her know what theories I had whilst reading it, because she was really excited to see how people interpreted the book. And I do have a fair few theories, brought about through subtle clues throughout the book.

This book was a wonderful debut by Glynn, and I am very much looking forward to the next installment in the Rosewood Chronicles.

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.