Books: Leah on the Offbeat

31180248Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli
Published April 24, 2018
star-4
In Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Becky Albertalli not only gave us an incredibly sweet gay romance, she also created a close-knit group of friends who are diverse, emotional, dramatic, and, most importantly, believably teenage. Arguably the hardest to understand was complicated, prickly Leah Burke. Leah on the Offbeat puts the burgeoning drummer front and center in this sweet, but angsty, story of self-discovery set against the emotional backdrop that is senior year.

As in the previous Creekwood/Simonverse books, Albertalli captures the teenage experience so well. I’m definitely not a teenager anymore, but the pop-culture filled dialogue, emphasis on social media, and the messy emotional space of trying to decide if you have a crush on someone or are just flattered to be liked, rang true for me. I also couldn’t help smiling at the DRAMA of it all! I’m sure all of us remember stressing about problems or situations that felt all-important at the time, but in retrospect really weren’t all that big of a deal.

Like Albertalli’s other books, Leah on the Offbeat can be broadly classed as YA drama with a fluffy ending. Leah herself may be a more cynical (although no less oblivious) narrator than Simon Spier, and she’s less inclined to wear her heart on her sleeve, but the various tangled plot threads all wrap up neatly into an ending that will no doubt satisfy fans of the characters.

Often the most intriguing fictional characters are those that really don’t have it all together yet, and that definitely describes Leah Burke. Her narrative voice is sarcastic, stubborn, and completely unapologetic, but underneath her take-no-shit exterior, she’s kind of a confused mess – particularly when it comes to her feelings. What’s so interesting about Leah on the Offbeat is how Albertalli manages to craft a story in which the reader often knows more about the first-person narrator’s emotional state than the protagonist does! Yes, it takes awhile for Creekwood High’s “resident fat Slytherin Rory Gilmore” to realize that she has a crush on someone who is definitely-totally-probably-maybe not? off limits.

Although romance is once again a major part of the plot, and I’m thrilled to see young bisexual women gaining some much needed representation, to be honest I was more invested in Leah Burke’s personal journey. If something isn’t perfect then Leah withdraws completely, likely in an attempt to fend off rejection. It’s incredibly relatable. How many times have I rewritten reviews striving to find the perfect word until it’s published so far after the fact that it’s no longer relevant? Watching Leah accept that things don’t have to be perfect, that things can have imperfections but still hold value, was really special.

I’m not normally a seasonal reader, but Leah on the Offbeat strikes me as the perfect Spring/Summer book. From the colourful cover to the bittersweet goodbyes of senior year within, this is a book that’s meant to be read outside. It may not have grabbed me in quite the same way as the first book in the series, but if you’re invested in the lives of Simon, Leah, Blue, Abby, and everyone at Creekwood High, like I am, it’s definitely worth reading.

Books: The Eagle of the Ninth

751744The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
March 9, 2000
star-3-half
I picked up Rosemary Sutcliff’s acclaimed children’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth with some apprehension, but a healthy dose of curiosity. A long-time fixture on my TBR, I spotted it in a gift shop while visiting a roman fort in England and it seemed like fate. What better place to get swept away by a story of Roman Britain than along the remains of Hadrian’s Wall? Roman Britain is a favourite historical era of mine, but I worried that the story, generally shelved as middle grade, would be too juvenile for me to appreciate. Fortunately this is children’s lit with broad appeal. Published in the 1950s, its sophisticated prose and historical detail make Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth an enduring classic.

I confess to enjoying the 2011 Hollywood adaptation of the novel, mostly because it employs a lot of the tropes I enjoy. There’s ‘enemies to grudging respect to love’ (whether you interpret it as platonic, brotherly, or romantic), ‘opposites attract’, and ‘shifting power dynamics’ all rolled up in a Roman Britain-set quest. However The Eagle is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good movie. For one thing it stars Channing Tatum. For another, all of the Romans speak with American accents. The novel on which the movie is based is not just enjoyable though, it’s genuinely well-written historical fiction.

The Eagle of the Ninth draws inspiration from two historical mysteries – the disappearance of the Ninth Legion, which marched from York into Northern Britain and was never heard from again, and the discovery of a wingless Roman Eagle during excavations at Silchester eighteen hundred years later. When Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila receives a career-ending wound in the line of duty, he embarks on a personal quest to find out what happened to his father, who led the Ninth Legion, and to recover the Eagle from the Northern Tribes.

In Marcus, Sutcliff has created a genuinely likable protagonist, who I was sorry to leave behind when the book ended. Intelligent, brave, and moral, he shows a genuine respect for, and desire to understand, his fellow human beings and different ways of life. I also loved that although Marcus is a (former) soldier, there’s no toxic masculinity here. Marcus feels feel and pain, relies on others, and treats everyone he meets with kindness. The secondary characters are also engaging, particularly Cottia, a stubborn teenage firebrand who speaks her mind and reminds me of another favourite character from childhood, Princess Eilonwy from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. I enjoyed Esca and his unwavering loyalty to Marcus, but wished we received more insight into his character and mind over the course of the book.

Unlike the movie, The Eagle of the Ninth moves at a measured pace. Although it feels more realistic and historically accurate, tension isn’t always maintained and I wasn’t fully engaged from start to finish. The prose is solid and descriptive, providing a window into life in Roman Britain and among the Tribes north of the wall, although Sutcliff doesn’t always provide translations or definitions for Roman terms or place names, which can make it difficult to follow.

There are also a few problematicâ„¢ elements here, with Sutcliff writing at one point that slavery sat easy on the old house slaves because they had a good master. Cue me cringing, but besides that the book has aged well and is still an engaging read today.

Most of all though, I appreciated The Eagle of the Ninth‘s central message, about the importance of friendship, loyalty, and home. Although it’s important that Marcus embark on this quest to learn what happened to his father, what matters most are the lessons he learns along the way about where his heart truly lies.