Review: ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ by Becky Albertalli

When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually right on the beat – but real life is a little harder to manage. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends she’s bisexual, not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high and it’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting – especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended …

This book is the sequel to Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and if you haven’t read that or at least seen the movie (Love, Simon), Leah contains some major spoilers for it. So, you know, get onto that. (My review of that is here if you need further prompting.)

Leah on the Offbeat was a quick read. Albertalli is an absolute star at writing dialogue. A lot of of this story is told that way, with less of a focus on the text surrounding it, and it really works in this context. (Especially with the nerdy banter — all the Harry Potter jokes! Aah!) But dialogue does make for a faster read than pretty much any other type of writing.

Leah, the point of view character, is such a contradiction of a character. She’s anxious and closed off, and it makes her sarcastic and moody. She can be downright nasty at times — I especially felt bad for her poor mother. And at the same time, Leah is a totally relatable teen who struggles when she’s presented with awkward moments and socially tricky situations. I’m not saying I endorse some of her behaviour by any stretch — and her apparent inability to apologise when she screws up is a thing she doesn’t really grow out of during the course of this story — but I can understand it. I can relate to it. I know I had moments like that as a teen, though I was never as cool as Leah is.

There is one scene in Leah that a lot of people find problematic, and I can totally see why. It’ll be no surprise from the blurb that Leah falls for/has fallen for one of the females in her friendship group. (I won’t say who, because spoilers, but it becomes clear pretty early in the story.) That friend is questioning her own sexulaity, and goes from “hetero experimenting” to “lowkey bi” to “bi” over the course of the book. When the friend tells Leah she’s lowkey bi, Leah lashes out at her — which a lot of people see as policing the friend’s sexuality, and as totally uncool. Which it is.

But here’s the thing. I found that scene a bit of a revelation, as someone who has thought of herself as “lowkey bi” for a few years now (though not in those words). Because Leah’s reaction articulated perfectly for me why I’d be concerned about getting into a relationship with a woman. What if I wasn’t bi enough? Would it be fair to her? I felt seen. And the fact that Leah’s friend actually comes through the other side in this story to find acceptance was really heartwarming for me. (Also, if any of my family are reading this, uh, hi?)

Anyway. More broadly, the rep in Leah is everything you could hope for. Leah is fat and generally not ashamed of it, but has moments — like when she’s chosing a prom dress — where it is rubbed in her face. Those felt super-real to me. There is also a black character who deals with racism, as well as Simon and “Blue” (real name withheld due to spoilers), the gay pair from the first book, and minor characters from other minorities. You can tell that Albertalli did her homework. (I don’t know what her background is, but no way is she writing Own Voices for all those different groups at once!)

As far as the non-romance part of the story goes, Leah is a fairly traditional “last year of high school in Amerca” story: chosing colleges, changing friendship group dynamics, prom. I think that works, though, as a backdrop to Leah’s story more broadly.

Overall, I’d rate Leah as 4.5 stars — not quite as brilliant as Simon, but still definitely worth the read.

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Mini-Review: ‘A Hand of Knaves’ short short anthology

Rogues, thieves, pirates and ne’er-do-wells abound in speculative fiction. Sometimes heroic, sometimes villainous, often somewhere in between, rogues are as likely to steal one’s heart as one’s purse, and show little remorse while helping themselves to either.

So why do we love them? Because they’re imperfect, fallible, and even vulnerable under that carefully-maintained, world-weary exterior.

Rogues represent something we rarely see in our daily lives: ordinary people prepared to take on the “powers that be” by way of guile and subterfuge. But are they only in it for the loot, or are they–deep down–romantic at heart?

I have a policy of not rating or reviewing my own books (even over at Goodreads, where author reviews are a thing), but in this case I will, partly because I’m just one contributor, and partly because there are lots of awesome Aussie writers in here and I love to support Aussie fiction (especially by Aussie women, given I do the Australian Women Writers challenge every year). Also, in case you were wondering, I can’t profit any further from sales of this book — so there’s no financial incentive for me to lie. 😉

I’m honestly a little blown away by the talent on display in AHOK (especially because I apparently duped the editors into letting my story sit alongside the others!). There are rollicking space pirate adventures; beautiful stories full of slow magic and whimsy; time-travel and psychic tales that twisted my brain in knots; and vignettes that were gorgeously atmospheric and left me wanting more. There are LGBTQ+ and POC stories, too, which I always love reading. Oh, and one story that is told entirely in quotes from witnesses. (Literally just extracts of dialogue, but you still can see the tale emerge!)

If you can track down a copy of this anthology, please do. I strongly recommend it!


Review: ‘The Odd 1s Out: How to Be Cool and Other Things I Definitely Learned from Growing Up’ by James Rallison

Hilarious stories and advice about the ups and downs of growing up, from a popularYouTube artist and storyteller.

Like any shy teen turned young adult, YouTube star James Rallison (“The Odd 1s Out”) is used to being on the outside looking in. He wasn’t partying in high school or winning football games like his older brother. Instead, he posted comics on the internet. Now, he’s ready to share his hard-earned advice from his 21 years of life in the funny, relatable voice his fans love.

In this illustrated collection, Rallison tells his own stories of growing up as the “odd one out”: in art class with his twin sister (she was more talented), in the middle school locker room, and up to one strange year of college (he dropped out). Each story is filled with the little lessons he picked up along the way, serious and otherwise, like:

* How to be cool (in seventh grade)
* Why it’s OK to be second-best at something, and
* How to survive your first, confidence-killing job interviews

Filled with fan-favorite comics and never-before-seen material, this tongue-in-cheek take on some of the weirdest, funniest parts of life is perfect for both avid followers and new converts.

Astute readers of my blog will have noticed that this isn’t my usual kind of read. I ordered the book for my son for Christmas, and since I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of TheOdd1sOut YouTube channel, I decided to give it a read.

James is a cartoonist who does storytime animation — he has a relatively simplistic animation style that he uses to convey relatable and funny stories. I like it when my son watches that sort of YouTube content, because it generally involves less OBNOXIOUS SHOUTING than the Let’s Play type channels, and more, you know, stories.

This book is short (unsurprising given the target audience is middle grade children), and filled with cute pictures that perfectly capture the mood of the various anecdotes — the pictures are freshly drawn, not just stills from the original videos. And there were a couple of genuine LOL moments for me, both of them in stories that I hadn’t already heard.

But here’s the thing. I haven’t watched a huge amount of TheOdd1sOut, but the videos I have seen are the most popular ones … and those seem to be the ones that are included in this book. There were only two or three chapters in this book that I hadn’t already seen the videos of. If the ratio had been the other way around (mostly new content with a couple of chapters of already-used anecdotes), I suspect this book would’ve earned the full five stars from me. And I can see that some readers might be put off by that.

Still, if you’ve got a YouTube obsessed kid who you want to encourage to read more, or one who’s a fan of James’s, this book is definitely recommended. It’s clean, funny and kid-friendly.

UPDATE: My son loves that there are so many stories he’s already seen in video form. So maybe the publishers know more about kids than I do!


Review: ‘The Demon’s Surrender’ by Sarah Rees Brennan

DemonsSurrender_cover

The Goblin Market has always been the center of Sin’s world. She’s a dancer and a performer, secure in her place. But now the Market is at war with the magicians, and Sin’s place is in danger. Exiled from the market she loves, Sin is thrown together with Nick and Alan — whom she’s always despised.

Alan has been marked by a magician and can be tortured as the magician pleases. As Sin watches Alan struggle to continue to protect the demon brother he loves, she begins to see him in a new light. When Alan is finally possessed as a punishment for Nick’s disobedience, Sin can only watch helplessly as the boy she has grown to love is destroyed. No one ever comes back from a possession — ever. But no one else has a demon for a brother. How far will Nick go to save Alan? And what will it cost them all?

It was a bit disappointed going into The Demon’s Covenant that Jamie wasn’t the POV character (or Alan; he’s the most unreliable character in the trilogy – but that would make him fun to follow!). Sin was too much of a side character for me, going in, and I didn’t understand why she was the focus.

I think the short answer is that she is the love interest for Alan, and the character who truly knows the Goblin Market, so through her we get to see more of it. I love Alan and his sneakiness and devotion to his brother (plus: charming book nerd), and Sin is a great match for him. I did love that part of the story.

And Sin is a great character in her own right. She is an astute and clever performer, a chameleon, used to doing what she needs to to get things done. She’s a dancer not afraid of using her sexuality to exploit the ignorant – but she knows what her lines are as far as that goes, and she doesn’t compromise on them.

The Goblin Market side of things, though … yeah, that didn’t work for me. The competition Merris insists on between Sin and Mae is super-problematic. Sin is the poor woman of colour who has grown up in, and been trained to run, the market. Mae is the rich white girl used to getting what she wants and who has been to maybe three or four markets. How is this even a competition? I mean, I liked Mae in the previous book, but she needs to get back in her box. How dare she think she’s entitled to what is basically Sin’s birthright? Ugh!

Also, the two girls get on quite well even early on in the story. That it never occurred to either of them to work together, pool their differing talents and share the role, baffles me.

Anyway, I’d still recommend this series – especially the first book, which is wonderful, clever, and focuses on familial love in a way we rarely see in urban fantasy.

 

 


Mini-review: ‘Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body’ by Simon Petrie

Tanja Morgenstein, daughter of a wealthy industrialist and a geochemist, is dead from exposure to Titan’s lethal, chilled atmosphere, and Guerline Scarfe must determine why.

This novella blends hard-SF extrapolation with elements of contemporary crime fiction, to envisage a future human society in a hostile environment, in which a young woman’s worst enemies may be those around her.

‘Matters Arising’ won the 2018 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novella or Novelette, and was shortlisted in the analogous category in both the Aurealis and Ditmar Awards.

A mini review for a miniature book. 🙂

Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body is a great short read for those who like their sci-fi hard and their investigators dogged. I could relate to the fact that Guerline is a single mum and that she just wants to do her job — you go, girl! She’s awesome, and I want to read more about her.

There’s no romance in this novella (if that affects your decision to pick it up one way or the other). I can take romance or leave it, so it worked for me. I mostly guessed the whodunnit angle and the why of it, but the journey was worth it anyway.

I’ll definitely pick up more books by Petrie.

 


Review: ‘The Demon’s Covenant’ by Sarah Rees Brennan

Mae Crawford’s always thought of herself as in control, but in the last few weeks her life has changed. Her younger brother, Jamie, suddenly has magical powers, and she’s even more unsettled when she realizes that Gerald, the new leader of the Obsidian Circle, is trying to persuade Jamie to join the magicians. Even worse… Jamie hasn’t told Mae a thing about any of it. Mae turns to brothers Nick and Alan to help her rescue Jamie, but they are in danger from Gerald themselves because he wants to steal Nick’s powers. Will Mae be able to find a way to save everyone she cares about from the power-hungry magician’s carefully laid trap?

For those that missed it, I reviewed the first book in this trilogy here. It’s taken me a while to get to the second book because I wanted one in the same edition, with the matching cover, and it was super-hard to find. I ended up having to go online and get it second-hand. (Yes, I am that person.)

Anyway. To the review!

The Demon’s Covenant was an enjoyable follow-up to the first book in the series. Unlike the first, which is from Nick’s point of view, the second is from Mae’s. She’s clearly got a big-time crush on Nick, but she tries to ignore it for what are, frankly, very good reasons: he is still just as dangerous and unstable as he was in the first book. The only emotions he really, truly understands are rage and possessiveness. (This is all for good story reasons that I won’t go into because you really need to read The Demon’s Lexicon.)

In the same way that seeing Nick’s thoughts from the inside in the first book made him more sympathetic, seeing him through Mae’s eyes has a similar effect. Brennan is, frankly, a master — I’ve mentioned many times how much I hate the alpha male love interest who is violent and possessive to a girl for her own good. And I do hate that trope.

But here … well, it sort of works.

A lot of the plot is devoted to who is kissing/loves whom — Mae dates Seb despite her interest in Nick and Alan’s interest in her, for example — but the book still stayed true to its urban fantasy roots rather than crossing the line into paranormal romance. I couldn’t really see Mae’s attraction to Seb at first, especially given his history of bullying her brother, but it becomes pretty quickly apparent that she’s dating him for the same reason Buffy dates Riley in Buffy: the Vampire Slayer: he’s the normal guy in her abnormal world. (And look how that worked out…)

Still, the story is filled with secrets, lies and betrayals, not just with kissing, and I’m always there for that. My favourite character, far and away, is the sweet and hilarious Jamie, Mae’s brother. I’m sad that the third book isn’t from his point of view, honestly.

Also, the end made me cry. Not many books can actually do that.

Check out this series. Seriously.


Review: ‘Lifel1k3’ by Jay Kristoff

On a floating junkyard beneath a radiation sky, a deadly secret lies buried in the scrap.

Eve isn’t looking for secrets—she’s too busy looking over her shoulder. The robot gladiator she’s just spent six months building has been reduced to a smoking wreck, and the only thing keeping her Grandpa from the grave was the fistful of credits she just lost to the bookies. To top it off, she’s discovered she can destroy electronics with the power of her mind, and the puritanical Brotherhood are building a coffin her size. If she’s ever had a worse day, Eve can’t remember it.

But when Eve discovers the ruins of an android boy named Ezekiel in the scrap pile she calls home, her entire world comes crashing down. With her best friend Lemon Fresh and her robotic conscience, Cricket, in tow, she and Ezekiel will trek across deserts of irradiated glass, infiltrate towering megacities and scour the graveyard of humanity’s greatest folly to save the ones Eve loves, and learn the dark secrets of her past.

Even if those secrets were better off staying buried.

I can describe this book in a few words: high-octane, post-apocalyptic young adult inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road and Anastasia. (They don’t mention the latter on the cover, though — I’m guessing it wasn’t gritty enough.)

Things I loved

Eve and Lemon Fresh. These two were the most awesome best friend combo I’ve read in a while: supportive and sassy, with no hint of rivalry — but at the same time each character is her own person, with her own secrets and clear personality. I loved Lemon’s brash ego (and squishy interior) and Eve’s decisiveness and self-doubt. I would read about them alllll day.

Cricket and Kaiser. The blurb calls Cricket Eve’s robotic conscience and that’s true to an extent, but he’s been programmed with a personality that is well-suited to Eve’s and a habit of flipping the bird at people in a way that reminded me of BB-8 giving the thumb’s up. Kaiser is a regular dog … if that dog was mostly robot, given uber-bloodhound powers and programmed to kill. He is the very best good boy of all the good boys.

The plot. I guessed some of what was going on, but that final chapter blew me away. (Trigger warning for a cliffhanger ending. OMG. Is the sequel out yet?)

The lingo. I struggled with the slang in the first couple of chapters, but once I got used to it, I loved the different words in this book: fizzy (awesome) and true cert (legit) and all the rest of them. Kristoff is great at this kind of detailed world-building, and Lifel1k3 is no exception.

One thing I was a little “ehh” on

Ezekiel. He’s the love interest and he’s just kind of … plastic. (And I don’t mean because he’s a robot — his defining trait seems to be love for the mysterious Ana, and that’s about it.) But he can definitely kick ass and is loyal and pretty, so that redeeemed him somewhat. I’m hoping he’ll really come into his own in the second book.

Still, definitely give this one a go, for Lemon Fresh if nothing else! I love my Lemon. ❤