Stay Gold by Tobly McSmith

Published: 3 August 2021 (print)/26 May 2020 (audio) Goodreads badge
Quill Tree Books/Naxos Audio
Pages: 384/9 hrs and 19 mins
Narrator: Theo Germaine, Phoebe Strole
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

Content warning: This book deals with and depicts scenes of transphobia, homophobia, suicidal ideation and violent hate crimes.

Pony just wants to fly under the radar during senior year. Tired from all the attention he got at his old school after coming out as transgender, he’s looking for a fresh start at Hillcrest High. But it’s hard to live your best life when the threat of exposure lurks down every hallway and in every bathroom.

Georgia is beginning to think there’s more to life than cheerleading. She plans on keeping a low profile until graduation…which is why she promised herself that dating was officially a no-go this year.

Then, on the very first day of school, the new guy and the cheerleader lock eyes. How is Pony supposed to stay stealth when he wants to get close to a girl like Georgia? How is Georgia supposed to keep her promise when sparks start flying with a boy like Pony?

This was an interesting mixed bag in terms of reviewing because I liked so much of it but other parts were unrealistic. I won’t list them here because while they aren’t quite spoilers it’s not entirely relevant either.

There’s content warnings for assault, brief misgendering and minor suicidal ideation but McSmith includes these in key moments from certain characters. Pony is trying to establish himself at the new school with a lot of pressure coming at him from friends and family, and it isn’t until further in the book do you realise how much that goal is holding him together. How hard everything is, how exhausting it is for Pony to be the person he’s presenting to the world. It’s also a wonderful example of how it doesn’t take much to change someone’s entire viewpoint if it comes at the wrong time. Enough blows will make anybody fall.

The further I got into this story the more grateful I was this wasn’t going to be a story of major abusive and transphobia. The positivity Pony described from his previous school, and his own happiness with himself made dealing with an unsupportive father easier, especially with his sister and mother by his side. But of course people are going to be people. The scene comes towards the end of the book, and as much as felt like it was a token scene of abuse, I kind of understand why MCSmith included it. You can’t ignore the fact transphobia exists, and you can’t help there’s horrible people around, but at the same time after a book that was 90% light hearted happy vibes of regular teen drama and identity quests, having a sudden shift was a shock. Thankfully it comes towards the end and McSmith definitely uses it as a jumping of point for major character development. It has a purpose which is something I suppose.

I was worried it would become too cinematic perfection by the end, especially with the subplot of Pony helping out the former movie star. That was an interesting side story that felt important but also wasn’t quite as significant as I expected. It helped Pony realise some things, but McSmith doesn’t use it as a saviour either which I was expecting.

All the characters grow in their own way, which is all you can ask of them. Max, Pony, Georgia and even Pony’s family evolve and while there is room for improvement hope is all you can leave a person with. Sometimes stark realities and harsh reminders are needed, even if feels out of place.

People are capable of incredibly things with the right motivation and seeing Georgia’s growth as she comes into herself and realises her own identity is wonderful. Pony’s own realisation about what kind of person he wants to be is ongoing, the shield he’s held up about His Identity through the year is allowing more of himself to come through. McSmith concludes the book knowing everyone is going to be ok, even if it feels a tad cheesy sometimes that can be ok.

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Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley

Published: 28th April 2020Goodreads badge
Allen & Unwin
Pages: 248
Format: Paperback
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

At sixteen, neurodivergent Peta Lyre is the success story of social training. That is, until she finds herself on a school ski trip – and falling in love with the new girl. Peta will need to decide which rules to keep, and which rules to break…

‘I’m Peta Lyre,’ I mumble. Look people in the eye if you can, at least when you greet them. I try, but it’s hard when she is smiling so big, and leaning in.

Peta Lyre is far from typical. The world she lives in isn’t designed for the way her mind works, but when she follows her therapist’s rules for ‘normal’ behaviour, she can almost fit in without attracting attention.

When a new girl, Sam, starts at school, Peta’s carefully structured routines start to crack. But on the school ski trip, with romance blooming and a newfound confidence, she starts to wonder if maybe she can have a normal life after all.

When things fall apart, Peta must decide whether all the old rules still matter. Does she want a life less ordinary, or should she keep her rating normal?

This is a fantastic book that gets into the mind of a neurodivergent teen and helps you understand how messy and complicated things can be and how everyday things can become incredibly complicated when you’re trying to behave like you’re “supposed” to.

Peta comes across on the page instantly and you can gauge who she is and her view on the world. Her friendships are important, she’s always trying to do the right thing and lives her life guided by the rules she has had drilled into her. Her exhaustion is evident but at the same time seeing her able to be herself and free from the rules is refreshing.

The story has a lot of sharp turns and rough edges but what I loved about that is this whole thing is being told through Peta’s eyes. She’s already told us her mind works differently so to have a story suddenly shift made sense. Logic works differently for Peta and while it can make the story take a dark or different turn it’s because situations change and life changes around Peta and she is constantly fighting to keep up. What makes sense to her won’t make sense to others but it’s always made clear just how much Peta is trying.

Whateley flips between the past and present as we see Peta’s journey and her experiences which helps us understand her and how she’s come to be where she is. I loved being inside Peta’s head because what she thinks she is doing isn’t always what others think she’s doing. Having the obvious miscommunication on the page only adds to forcing the reader to understand how the brain can interpret things differently for each person and you never know what anyone else is going through.

Seeing Peta come into her own is wonderful, finding herself and her place, as well as strengthening relationships is a great reward having seen her struggle as she recounts the issues she’s had in her past and in her present.

It’s a great achievement of Whateley to give Peta the right voice that speaks volumes about her experiences and I really hope it’s a book that provides an insight into the life of other neurodivergent people.

You can purchase Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal via the following

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Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland

Published: 4 October 2016 (print)/4th Aug 2020 (audio) Goodreads badge
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers/Penguin Random House Australia
Pages: 320/8 hrs and 1 min
Narrator: Robbie Daymond
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★  – 1 Star

Henry Page has never been in love. He fancies himself a hopeless romantic, but the slo-mo, heart palpitating, can’t-eat-can’t-sleep kind of love that he’s been hoping for just hasn’t been in the cards for him-at least not yet. Instead, he’s been happy to focus on his grades, on getting into a semi-decent college and finally becoming editor of his school newspaper. Then Grace Town walks into his first period class on the third Tuesday of senior year and he knows everything’s about to change.

Grace isn’t who Henry pictured as his dream girl-she walks with a cane, wears oversized boys’ clothes, and rarely seems to shower. But when Grace and Henry are both chosen to edit the school paper, he quickly finds himself falling for her. It’s obvious there’s something broken about Grace, but it seems to make her even more beautiful to Henry, and he wants nothing more than to help her put the pieces back together again. And yet, this isn’t your average story of boy meets girl. Krystal Sutherland’s brilliant debut is equal parts wit and heartbreak, a potent reminder of the bittersweet bliss that is first love.

I’m sad this wasn’t a great Aussie YA because we usually do it so well. The Americanisation was disappointing when I learnt Sutherland was Australian and we missed out on a great Aussie story. I thought it was a bad American book but when I realised it was a bad book Americanised for the overseas market somehow that was somehow worse.

To get in our little slice of Australia there is a horrible stereotypical character which is absolutely painful. Sutherland should know how terrible this is for us to see the over exaggerated Australian in media and she should stop perpetuating it. It isn’t even that the narrator of the audiobook CANNOT do an Australian accent to save their life, but the dialogue Sutherland has written is so awful I kept having to pause it because it hurt to listen and I need it to stop. I couldn’t even stop and pick up my copy of the book because it’s not just the accent, I was not enjoying so much of this book and I could get through it faster listening to it.

I also find it hilarious that Murray who is so Australian it keeps being rammed down our throats, that his own parents would chastise Henry for using the word ‘bastard’. Like, give us some realism here please for the love of god.

I need to write or read a story where a teen’s favourite music is from the last 20 years and not something from before they were born. I get it’s probably easier to not date things or whatever, but if your goal is to create the Unique Girl and the Unique Boy then the fact it happens far too often diminishes that. There is another stereotype about how one kiss with a boy led Grace to come out as a lesbian and Henry’s favourite movie is Fight Club which is an interesting choice and given my opinions of Henry that doesn’t surprise me.

In a story where the word cripple is used, albeit by a character with a limp, to also have other characters wonder if it’s politically correct to mention someone has a limp was a curious contrast. It was a shock to hear the word cripple used and whether Sutherland justifies it by having a character describe themselves it still felt weird.

Grace wears typical guy clothes but it is stressed that she isn’t a tomboy. The role Grace plays is usually reserved for the boy in these types of YAs, the one who thinks the Deep Thoughts, but she is also playing her role as the Mysterious Girl that intrigues the boy who apparently has never seen another girl in his life. The self-reflection and acknowledgement of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl doesn’t stop it from being an eye roll.

Henry is a romantic and a dreamer but he is also a fool. The way Henry talks about Grace is cringe worthy and he has already put her on a pedestal because she’s so intriguing. There isn’t anything remarkable about Grace, she is a normal, sarcastic, cynical teen and the book wasn’t doing anything to work against the tropes that has Henry wanting to “save her”. One redeeming factor is when Grace quizzes Henry on why he’s never had a girlfriend, one of the first reasons he gives is he’s seventeen and I will give Sutherland credit for that being a legitimate reason.

There were other issues as well. Betrayal of trust and stalking were twice used as a joke, and despite being published in 2016 there are two problematic jokes and gays and lesbians, plus one about AIDS being funny with no sense of irony that I can discern if that’s even an excuse.

It was basically for all this combined that I did not finish this book and left at the halfway mark. I’ve read reviews that the ending is good but aside from speed running the entire second half to have some reasonable ending isn’t too appealing. I’ve read other one star reviews that explain what’s wrong with this book a lot better than I can and it’s a comfort to know there’s others out there like me. I am contemplating watching the movie to see if it’s remotely tolerable and let me see the ending without need me to finish this godforsaken book but I don’t think I care enough about this book to watch the movie. If not a summary will suffice because I couldn’t keep going even to see if there was any redemption and I have a bad feeling the movie will take away any depth these characters had.

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The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I (#2) by Carolyn Mackler

Published: 29th May 2018 (print)/29th May 2018 (audio) Goodreads badge
Bloomsbury U.S.A. Children’s Books /Recorded Books
Pages: 304/7 hrs and 51 mins
Narrator: Laura Knight Keating
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

It’s been five months since sixteen-year-old Virginia Shreves thought her life was finally back on course: she has come to terms with who she is both inside and out, and she’s even started to rebuild her relationship with her older brother Byron, whose date-rape charge completely shattered everything.

But just as she’s getting used to the new normal, Virginia’s world turns upside down again. Sparks with boyfriend Froggy Welsh the Fourth fade, her best friend Shannon bombshells bad news, and then the police arrest Byron.

As Virginia struggles to cope, she meets Sebastian, an artist with his own baggage. The pair make a pact not to share their personal dramas. But secrets have a way of coming out, and theirs have the potential to ruin everything.

This sequel was published in 2018 so it’s clear after updating Virginia’s story Mackler felt compelled to keep the story going, either that or the compulsion for a sequel prompted a revision of the first. Either way it’s not a bad addition by any means, it’s the same characters and the tone is similar to the first book which works in its favour.

Plot wise I enjoyed that there were ongoing outcomes and consequences from the events in the first book. It’s only a few months later and it’s a nice reminder that things aren’t solved and wrapped up neatly at the end of a book. Having said that you don’t need to have read book one as the events previous are recounted fairly seamlessly, and the continuation of the story means nothing much has been happening in between.

There’s still talk around the sexual assault, and the fatphobia and body images aren’t gone which adds realism and believability to a story that previously tried to fix things a little too quickly. Previous characters return, some with more depth than before, and new antagonists bring conflict and a different type of drama.

I liked the introduction of Sebastian and how Mackler navigated it between Virginia and the bigger story. I would have been annoyed if they got close later in the book but the fact they become friends and maybe something more early on was a good distraction for Virginia and it allowed something to be only hers for a while. Of course it also allows for a bigger impact once all the secrets come out, classic storytelling. But Mackler handles it well and I liked how Sebastian and Virginia managed their relationship around the drama.

Virginia is once again shameless about her infatuations and her list. I also liked her approach to her brother and how she never really lets him off the hook for his actions. Trying to navigate that relationship now allows more growth for her, which is good as it shows there’s always more growing to do.

There are further reminders of the super-rich lifestyle as we delve into country clubs and nannies and it is very telling given how her parents react that there is a lot at stake about keeping up appearances and hoping things blow over around certain indiscretions. But overall it was an enjoyable story and satisfying to see further developments in Virginia’s story.

You can purchase The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I via the following

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The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things (#1) by Carolyn Mackler

Published: 3rd April 2018 (print)/4th May 2018 (audio) Goodreads badge
Bloomsbury U.S.A. Children’s Books /Recorded Books
Pages: 256/6 hrs 28 mins
Narrator: Laura Knight Keating
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

Fifteen-year-old Virginia feels like a plus-sized black sheep in her family, especially next to her perfect big brother Byron. Not to mention her best friend has moved, leaving Virginia to navigate an awkward relationship with a boy alone. He might like her now… but she has her doubts about how he’ll react if he ever looks under all her layers of clothes.

In order to survive, Virginia decides to follow a “Fat Girl Code of Conduct,” which works, until the unthinkable causes her family’s facade to crumble. As her world spins out of orbit, she realises that being true to herself might be the only way back.

I didn’t realise this was originally from 2003 because it felt more current but it was rereleased in 2018 as an updated version and despite never having read the 2003 version, I can definitely imagine why some of the advice and content might be not only outdate but promoting the wrong things. Given the subplot though I’d be curious to see how that was dealt with in 2003.

It’s always curious reading books set in the US because they have some very specific and weird subjects I never had in high school like Global Studies and one solely on Geometry. Rarely a mention on broader subjects, certainly this time there’s no mention of Maths, English, or simply Science. Granted Virginia goes to a posh school so maybe they’re beyond the simple subjects. There’re the usual stereotypes too of the popular kids, dorky kids, and ‘regular, I don’t fit in a group’ kids whatever that means, but you always need the outsiders to even the outsiders groups I guess.

Virginia is very confident in her lust for the baseball players, which you know, good for her. It was nice to see her unashamedly gawk at them and dream about them. But she also very unhappy at the start of the story and seeing her grow throughout is encouraging and definitely this is where a lot of the updated mentality and society changes can be seen. Mackler doesn’t fix everything, the ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ approach works to an extent but as a story showing how “the privileged girl also has problems” it has some merit but falls flat at times.

I love these absent families that don’t notice their kids are taking afternoon classes, wandering the city all day or aren’t in school. Though the way Virginia describes her parents skipping out most days and weekends it makes sense. Her family is also super rich so there’s probably a bit of parental neglect to ride on. The second house and the travelling parents isn’t something you need to read between the lines for, if it isn’t said outright it’s certainly inferred.

Content warnings for obvious things like fatphobia and bullying, but there is a subplot of Virginia’s older brother date-raping a girl which Virginia crosses a lot of lines in as well which was a weird decision to make by Mackler. There’s also self-harm and a horrible Fat Girl Code of Conduct to deal with, and while they’re addressed, the solutions and recoveries to Virginia’s problems felt rushed. Not saying there isn’t a shift in her mentality which is great, but it is a fast turn around and given how ingrained it is at the start, such a shift feels too simplified.

Despite a few flaws it is a well written story. It’s captivating, engaging, and the complexity of the material does show that people are complicated, you don’t know what other people are going through, and everybody has something their worrying about despite public appearances.

You can purchase The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things via the following

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