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.


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 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: ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ by Becky Albertalli

Straight people should have to come out too. And the more awkward it is, the better.

Simon Spier is sixteen and trying to work out who he is — and what he’s looking for.

But when one of his emails to the very distracting Blue falls into the wrong hands, things get all kinds of complicated.

Because, for Simon, falling for Blue is a big deal …

Before I start this review, let me just express my disgust at myself that I accidentally bought the movie cover edition of this book (which is the one I’ve included above, so my rant makes sense). Normally I don’t care much about that sort of thing, but in this case the movie cover edition actually renames the book to the movie name (Love, Simon) rather than the actual name of the book, and I can’t even. I mean, Love, Simon is a fine name for a book, but it isn’t the name of this book. Ugh! You’ll see in the pic below that I hid the stupid fake title so that you read the real one.

Now I’ve gotten that out of my system…

I’m coming to the love of Simon quite late, I admit — and not because the movie came out, as I haven’t seen it, but just because my TBR pile is two entire bookshelves and, like, a Kindle full of goodies, and I can’t seem to stop myself buying more books. (It’s a problem. Send help. Or a TARDIS so I can catch up.)

Still, I can now confirm first-hand that everything everyone has told me about this book is absolutely true. It really is an adorably cute story about a couple of in-the-closet gay guys who fall in love via email while remaining anonymous to one another. It’s told from Simon’s perspective, and so a huge part of the story is spent trying to figure out who the mysterious Blue is. (BTW, I don’t mean to brag here but I totally guessed it from the first scene he was in. Ok, I guess I do mean to brag. >.< )

As much as the romance is adorable, the story also explores bullying, blackmail, complicated friendships, coming out and families — but at no point does it seem preachy or overwrought. It’s basically the best.

If you like contemporary young adult, flirting and drama geeks, this book is totally worth a look.

Excuse me, I have to order the sequel.

 


Review: ‘This Is Where It Ends’ by Marieke Nijkamp

10:00 a.m. The principal of Opportunity High School finishes her speech, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester and encouraging them to excel and achieve.

10:02 a.m. The students get up to leave the auditorium for their next class.

10:03 a.m. The auditorium doors won’t open.

10:05 a.m. Someone starts shooting.

Told from four different perspectives over the span of fifty-four harrowing minutes, terror reigns as one student’s calculated revenge turns into the ultimate game of survival.

This book caught my eye last weekend in the bookstore because I recognised the author’s name from her involvement in the writing community, particularly as a PitchWars mentor. Then I read the blurb and the idea of it gave me chills, especially in light of what happened in Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High last month.

This Is Where It Ends didn’t disappoint.

First, while I’m talking about the blurb, let me say that it’s a tiny bit misleading. This book isn’t really a “game of survival” — it’s not The Hunger Games set in a high school or anything like that. I loved THG, but TIWIE is contemporary, not spec fic; it is more realistic, and more dreadful. None of the characters manifest cool ninja superpowers or a talent with a crossbow that saves the day. They are scared teenagers who don’t want themselves or their loved ones to die.

Some of the story is told through flashbacks; the four characters all have a connection to the shooter in one way or another, and we get to explore that as the story progresses. But I don’t want to go into those connections any further, because there is a minor spoiler involved in who the shooter actually turns out to be.

The four characters are Autumn, the dancer from an abusive home; her girlfriend, Sylv; Sylv’s twin brother and teen rebel, Tomas; and track star Claire. Through them we get to see the shooting unfold from different points around the school. This means that — even at times when the characters trapped in the auditorium can’t do a lot other than watch and try not to die — the other characters have some ability to try and affect events, even in a small way. The way the storylines were interwoven was very well done, and all of the characters were well-rounded. (My only minor criticism is that I found the voices of all four characters rather similar. But each section starts with the narrator’s name, so it’s still easy to follow along.)

Another device that TIWIE uses is social media, with Twitter and blog posts at different points, as the event unfolds. Having read some of the tweets from during the Florida shooting, these particularly undid me (a little awkward when I was reading in the doctor’s waiting room, not gonna lie). They were so real — complete with a troll — and through them we got to watch smaller stories play out over the course of the larger one.

TIWIE isn’t a light read, by any means, but it is a powerful one, especially in light of the #NeverAgain movement. It doesn’t take a position on gun control — not overtly — but the fictional shooter in this book is so much like the real-life shooters we read about in school shootings. And he obtained his gun legally. Make of that what you will.

TIWIE3


Review: ‘Carry On’ by Rainbow Rowell

Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.

That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.

Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he starts something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around, wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here — it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.

Carry On — The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow is a ghost story, a love story and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story — but far, far more monsters.

Carry On is the book inspired by the fictional characters in the young adult contemporary, Fangirl which I reviewed last year. In that book, the main character, Cath, is a huge fan of the Simon Snow series (which is, in turn, loosely inspired by Harry Potter); she writes a highly successful fanfic called ‘Carry On, Simon’, which is based in the Simon Snow world.

This novel is that fanfic. Or, at least, I like to imagine it is. It does have one of the key elements of Cath’s fanfic — that Simon and Baz are attracted to one another — which I don’t believe is in the “original” books whose world she’s writing about. Of course, it’s hard to say, given that the preceding six novels in the fictional world don’t actually exist! 😉

Carry On is the equivalent of the last book in the Harry Potter series, when all the skirmishes with the bad guy finally come to a head and everyone’s dark secrets are revealed. It has other Potter-ish elements (brainy female best friend, headmaster mentor who throws Simon in harm’s way, friendly gamekeeper, use of wands), and at the beginning it’s hard not to make comparisons, but the story goes off in a completely different direction.

And I loved it.

The magic system is cute and clever. Instead of pseudo-Latin phrases, spells in this universe use “magic words” — phrases that are used so often by humans that they become idioms or cliches that have entered the public’s consciousness. The more often the phrase is used, the more powerful the spell effect is that results. For example, “make a wish” to put out a fire (think birthday candles), or “hear ye, hear ye” to amplify your voice. Maybe it’s a little corny, but I’m a word nerd, so I loved it as much as I loved playing “spot the root word” in J.K. Rowling’s spell words.

Despite being a chosen one who never knew his parents, Simon isn’t actually that much like Harry. His life outside school is perhaps a little rougher than Harry’s, and Simon is an expert at going where he’s directed. He is paranoid about Baz (possibly even more paranoid than Harry is about Snape). He is also an expert at denial — not thinking about things that upset him — and doesn’t seem to have the same independent problem-solving ability that Harry does. Luckily, his best friend Penny is clever and organised. She’s like Hermione but with a little less empathy and tact. (And she’s Indian — her mother has a thing for P names.) I really enjoyed Penny’s point of view chapters.

I didn’t enjoy Agatha’s so much. She’s the ex-girlfriend, and almost entirely self-absorbed. She just wants to be left out of the danger and adventure so she can have a manicure, pine after True Love ™ and avoid all discussion of magic. But, although she is a bit frustrating, she’s also incredibly realistic. (I’d rather not get into danger saving the world either, thanks … and I did my share of pining at that age.)

Carry On is a multi-POV book — Simon, Penny and Baz get the lion’s share of the chapters, but there are chapters from maybe a half dozen or dozen other characters. That’s one of the things that reminded me of a lot of the fanfic I read back in the day, and made me think that this was more likely to be Cath’s version of the story rather than that of the original author, Gemma T. Leslie. (Okay, yes, I know both Cath and Gemma are creations of Rainbow. Shush!)

In terms of pacing, the book starts off a little slow. There’s a lot of backstory that is mentioned in passing — especially references to Baz’s past misdeeds. But once Baz enters the story personally, things really pick up and get interesting. For me, the reveals at the end were sufficiently foreshadowed that I guessed what was coming, but I still loved it.

And yes, the dialogue and the kissing scenes that the blurb mentions are excellent. 😉

 

 

 


Review: ‘Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology’

The YA event of the year. Bestsellers. Award-winners. Superstars. This anthology has them all. With brilliantly entertaining short stories from beloved young adult authors Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Will Kostakis, Ellie Marney, Jaclyn Moriarty, Michael Pryor, Alice Pung, Gabrielle Tozer, Lili Wilkinson and Danielle Binks, this all-new collection will show the world exactly how much there is to love about Aussie YA.

I love the #LoveOzYa movement, as — like the Australian Women Writers Challenge — it’s a great way to raise awareness of Aussie homegrown fiction. The fact that they turned it into an anthology that involved some of my favourite Aussie writers is even better.

If you love YA, get this anthology, whether you’re Australian or not. You won’t regret it.

One Small Step by Amie Kaufman

This is a gorgeous (and rather tense) romance between female best friends on Mars. I’d love to read more about these characters. Make it so, Amie!

I Can See the Ending by Will Kostakis

This one’s an urban fantasy about a teen psychic who can see the future but can’t change it (and struggling with the sense of futility that generates). It was quite clever, and as sweet as it was poignant.

In a Heartbeat by Alice Pung

This is a contemporary about teen pregnancy. It was really well done, though probably not my favourite of the contemporaries.

First Casualty by Michael Pryor

This sci-fi was my least favourite in the anthology. It was well-written and had a ragtag Firefly vibe about it that I was digging till the main story got started and it turned into a transparent dig at one of Australia’s previous conservative government. I don’t have a problem with that, per se (I’m hardly conservative!), but the lack of subtlety detracted from the story for me.

Sundays by Melissa Keil

Melissa Keil is my favourite contemporary YA author because of the way she handles misfits and nerds, and this story really delivers. It’s set over one evening at a wild, drunken party.

Missing Persons by Ellie Marney

This story is a prelude to the Every trilogy (which is a mystery/thriller inspired by Sherlock Holmes), and describes how Rachel Watts meets James Mycroft and Mai Ng. The squee factor will be higher if you have read the trilogy … which I have, so squeee!

Oona Underground by Lili Wilkinson

This is another gorgeous romance about a teen girl in love with her female best friend, but is quite different to One Small Step. It’s magic realism with a bit of a Neverwhere vibe. I’d definitely read more about this world (though I didn’t love Oona as much as I probably should have).

The Feeling from Over Here by Gabrielle Tozer

This is a contemporary set on a coach ride between Canberra and Melbourne, with some use of flashbacks and a lot of desperate texting. It primarily explores school bullying, and the voice is wonderful. One of my favourites!

Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory by Danielle Binks

This is another poignant story about a teen girl coming to grips with her older brother’s decision to travel the world after graduation. The two kids are called Bowie and King, which is rather unfortunate, but King is deaf, and the description of the sign language is really fascinating.

Competition Entry #349 by Jaclyn Moriarty

This story was a lot of fun, and competes with The Feeling From Over Here for the most voice. It’s modern day(ish), but with time travel and an amazingly scatterbrained main character. It’s great!