If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

Published: 3rd May 2016 (print)/4 August 2016 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Flatiron Books /Macmillan Audio
Pages: 280/6 hrs and 59 mins
Narrator: Samia Mounts
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

A new kind of big-hearted novel about being seen for who you really are.

Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.

But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.

Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?

Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl is a universal story about feeling different and a love story that everyone will root for.

I read this after Russo’s other book Birthday but while I liked this I think Birthday was a more powerful story. Even though some tough issues are raised here like transphobia, bullying, abuse and violence towards trans people, it was still a relatively minor part of the story. The main plot points are about Amanda at her new school, making new friends, falling in love and trying to reconnect with her estranged father.

There are stereotypes and easy roads taken to make Amanda’s story work which Russo admits to, but that is ok because this isn’t a story about Amanda’s transition (though we do get her full backstory through well placed flashbacks), this is about her life now and how she is navigating a new school, new relationships and her first love.

Russo’s author note at the end talks to her readers, trans and otherwise about how to approach Amanda’s story. She admits she took liberties and made the process seamless for Amanda where it otherwise shouldn’t have been to make the reader accept Amanda more easily, but she acknowledges that many other people don’t have such luxuries in real life. I liked this addition because it would be so easy to dismiss Amanda’s experiences because she had it easy and things were perfectly aligned for her, not to mention for people to assume this experience was universal when it isn’t. In doing so Russo makes the story afterwards the focus and Amanda’s life now rather than before where the main story lies.

Having said that, it isn’t a perfect road for Amanda – I hated that for the entire time I was waiting for the reveal about her past and for the town and/or her friends to turn on her. There are so many trans stories and they shouldn’t all end in revelations resulting in abuse and rejection but while some of Amanda’s story had rule bending, I appreciated Russo not sugar coating the entire experience.

Despite being #OwnVoices it still falls into YA tropes and stereotypes; it is cheesy and sappy at times, but if you’re after a sweet romance with the small town aesthetic that so many US YA books have then this is right up your alley.

You can purchase If I Was Your Girl via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | WorderyAngus and Robinson

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust | Audible

Birthday by Meredith Russo

Published: 31st May 2019Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Usborne Publishing Ltd
Pages: 300
Format: Paperback
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★   ★   ★ – 5 Stars

Meet Eric and Morgan.

Born on the same day, at the same time, in the same place. They’ve always shared this one day together, but as they grow up they begin to grow apart.

Everyone expects Eric to get a football scholarship, but no one knows he’s having second thoughts.
Former quarterback Morgan feels utterly alone, as she wrestles with the difficult choice to live as her true self.

Both of them are struggling to be the person they know they are. Who better to help than your best friend?

Told on one day every year, over six years, this is a story about how change pulls people apart… and how love brings them back together.

This book. Oh my gosh, this book. Birthday is an absolutely beautiful story that in part broke my heart and moved my soul.

I am not going to lie, it was heart wrenching and painful to read at times but Russo does a superb job getting you inside the minds of Eric and Morgan, especially Morgan. We feel their pain and anguish and the discovery of self when not a lot was being said and anything LGBTQIA was a punchline or a flippant insult. The same is said for the sexism because there is plenty of that as well. It’s full of the harm of toxic masculinity and the pressure and heartbreak boys are put through in order to live up to what they are “supposed to be”. It was incredibly sad, even in fiction, to read about how these characters were told off for saying they loved each other and weren’t allowed to cry.

Russo captures the derision of a town obsessed with football coupled with the reality that it is the only way out of a place that is dying. The dead end existence of their small town is well explained and the catch-22 of hating football but knowing it’s the only opportunity you’ll have to get into a good university and escape was a refreshing approach to other US novels where football is simply the town obsession for no reason (I mean it is a bit of that too). At least Russo makes it evident there is no real escape otherwise and the way this plays into both character’s choices and mentality is amazing.

Structurally I love how this story is laid out. With one day each year we see the lives of Morgan and Eric, their alternate views on same experiences and different lives as they start to grow up. Every year that passed for Morgan made me hurt, but every year that passed I saw how much Eric was still a loyal friend. Even with this one day we still discover how the rest of the year has been, it never felt like we were missing information of chunks of time. It was incredible how through one day over many years we get to see the whole lives of these characters and see their lives unfold.

I cannot praise this story enough. It is full of pain and sorrow, the confusion of being a teenager and the failure of the adults, but it is also about the power of friendship – especially friendship struggling under the damaging rules of society, bigotry, and ‘being normal’. There are many content warnings obviously such as parental death, self harm, homophobia, depression and bullying, but there are also moments of pure joy and the love, exploration and value of true friendship.

It’s a brilliant book because being inside Morgan and Eric’s head makes you angry and sad, and this isn’t even the distant past – there’s no exact year stated but with references to VHS video cameras, YouTube, and getting Netflix in the mail it’s not that long ago. It’s relatively recent in the scheme of everything and the story does an amazing job in showing how damaging this whole mentality can be while also showing there is always hope and there will always be people who love you and surprise you. I loved this book even though it made me hurt and I think even though it covers some tough subjects it’s an important story to tell and being an #OwnVoices story I think there is even more power and importance in these words.

You can purchase Birthday via the following

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Dymocks | WorderyAngus and Robinson

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust

I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman

Published: 3rd May 2018 (print)/3rd May 2018 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Harper Collins/Harper Collins Audio
Pages: 395/9 hrs and 45 mins
Narrator: Aysha Kala and Huw Parmenter
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

For Angel Rahimi, life is only about one thing: The Ark – a pop-rock trio of teenage boys who are currently taking the world by storm. Being part of The Ark’s fandom has given her everything – her friendships, her dreams, her place in the world.

Jimmy Kaga-Ricci owes everything to The Ark too. He’s their frontman – and playing in a band is all he’s ever dreamed of doing. It’s just a shame that recently everything in his life seems to have turned into a bit of a nightmare.

Because that’s the problem with dreaming – eventually, inevitably, real life arrives with a wake-up call. And when Angel and Jimmy are unexpectedly thrust together, they will discover just how strange and surprising facing up to reality can be.

Angel is living her best life as an Ark fan and when she gets a chance to meet the band she gets more than she bargained for. I was waiting for Angel to step over her boundaries as a fan but Oseman balances the line quite well. It was interesting seeing Angel’s mindset switch from thinking she knows everything about the band and its members to suddenly realising they are messy and complicated humans just like she is. I love how this is so intimate and yet not at the same time. It’s a snapshot in time where two paths crossed and they changed each other’s lives. I love that it is that simple.

At the same time though, the story is so much more than it first appears. The exploration about identity and expectation, as well trying to find your place in the world is incredibly well done. I loved the complex nature of the characters and how it never felt cliché or stereotypical, the pressures and realities were there and seeing such depth in the characters and their emotions is something Oseman is so good at. You get to be inside the head of these characters and they become real. The two points of view offer great contrast between the experiences of both Angel and Jimmy. Even overlapping the same events it was interesting to see the different perspectives and inner monologues and reactions. Oseman shows us the darker side of fame through The Ark’s experience and how each member copes with the stress and struggle and we see Angel’s life as a fan and her obsession with the band and the affect it has on her life. Each character stands on their own and even through Angel and Jimmy’s eyes we see their lives and struggles too.

Aysha Kala and Huw Parmenter do a wonderful job as narrators; having such an intimate book is helped along by having the voices in your ear like these characters are telling you the story themselves. It also helps bring out the emotion because this story is filled with emotions and with two first person narratives and heightened emotional subject matter there’s going to be a lot of them.

I was curious how the story would end but I think Oseman has perfectly wrapped it up. I was unsure if there would be a sudden shift but I found myself surprisingly satisfied with how the book ended and I’m still a little surprised at the impact it had one me. Oseman has written some beautiful stories and this is another one to add to the list. The complication of emotions, fame, friendships and life all come together all at once and the seeing it play out and aftermath of it all is a beautiful journey to go on.

You can purchase I Was Born for This via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | WorderyAngus and Robinson

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust | Audible

Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger

Published: 10th July 2007 (print)/22 December 2009 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Simon Schuster/Audible Studios
Pages: 294/6 hrs
Narrator: Sunil Malhotra
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★ – 1 Star

“Last week I cut my hair, bought some boys’ clothes and shoes, wrapped a large ACE bandage around my chest to flatten my fortunately-not-large breasts, and began looking for a new name.”

Angela Katz-McNair has never felt quite right as a girl. Her whole life is leading up to the day she decides to become Grady, a guy. While coming out as transgendered feels right to Grady, he isn’t prepared for the reaction he gets from everyone else. His mother is upset, his younger sister is mortified, and his best friend, Eve, won’t acknowledge him in public. Why can’t people just let Grady be himself?

Grady’s life is miserable until he finds friends in some unexpected places — like the school geek, Sebastian, who explains that there is precedent in the natural world (parrotfish change gender when they need to, and the newly male fish are the alpha males), and Kita, a senior who might just be Grady’s first love.

Why did I read this? I saw three one star reviews before I started but decided to see for myself. Yeah, no. One star is about right. Look, it isn’t the worst book I have read, but the fact it is trying to tell a trans story and if I, with my limited knowledge and experience, know that this is a terrible story then I can only imagine how any trans people reading it must feel.

I disliked this pretty early on. There is one sentence that told me this story wasn’t going to be right and it only got worse as it went along. The entire thing revolves around Grady and his attempt to be himself. Commendable, brave, all those things in a small town USA high school of course were going to be a challenge, but where Wittlinger has failed is she’s made these big emotional and social changes into small hurdles that all get overcome and resolved in the space of a few weeks and now everything is ok. I felt it brushed over trans issues quickly and at times barely mentioned anything about them at all.

Away from that, the characters themselves had no depth, they are forgettable, one dimensional, and honestly some of things coming out of their mouths is problematic on a whole different level. They are quick things, often said in a single sentence but stick with you. There’s racism, fatshaming, whatever it’s called where we’re still apparently making fun of people for “being a geek”, plus there’s a whole thing about trying to hook up with a girl who has a boyfriend. It’s as if Wittlinger needed to make everything around Grady nice so when the few bad things happen it stands out, but also have everyone around him be less somehow, so these key characters could feel superior. It felt weird and grubby at times and I hated reading about the mocking of these characters.

The one saving grace of this story is that it’s short. Malhotra does an ok job on narration, there isn’t much distinction in his voices for each character but I was too focused on the issues with the writing to worry too much about the voices. The stereotypes, the sexism, and the insensitivity throughout is astounding and it is evident Wittlinger has no concept of what being a boy means other than a short haircut and typical boy clothing. I am so glad I have read and know there are better trans books out there to enjoy because if this was my first point of call to books about coming out or an introduction to the trans community I would not only horribly misinformed but incredibly disappointed.

You can purchase Parrotfish via the following

 Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | Fishpond | Amazon

Amazon Aust | Audible