What We Left Behind – Robin Talley

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Blurb: “Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They’ve been together forever. They never fight. They’re deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college – Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU – they’re sure they’ll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, their relationship will surely thrive. The reality of being apart, however, is a lot different than they expected. As Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, falls in with a group of transgender upperclassmen immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship. While Toni worries that Gretchen, who is not trans, just won’t understand what is going on, Gretchen begins to wonder where she fits in Toni’s life. As distance and Toni’s shifting gender identity begins to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide – have they grown apart from good, or is love enough to keep them together?”

*I was sent this book by the publisher but this in no way affects my review*

*Toni uses “they/them” pronouns at the end of this book and so those will be used in this review until Robin Talley informs me otherwise*

There are so many things that attracted me to this book. For one, this is a story more about the relationship rather that how the relationship came about. For another, it’s realistic in terms of how a distance relationship is handled, and most importantly, it features a genderqueer character.

Quick definition of genderqueer for those who don’t know:

Genderqueer (n): a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions but identifies with neither, both or a combination of male and female genders.

As the “we need diverse books” outcry seems to be growing in numbers, there are a lot of books featuring trans characters dominating the shelves: recent books include The Art Of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson and George by Alex Gino. However, there doesn’t seem to be many books tackling genderqueer characters. Although genderqueer is a term that falls under the trans umbrella, genderqueer folks are a lot more fluid in their gender.

This book has so much complexity to it and that it’s hard to know where to start.

The plot is centered around Toni and Gretchen who are in a relationship and makes use of both “before and after” and dual perspectives to tell the story. While I’m getting slightly bored by books that follow this format, Robin Talley couldn’t have told this story in any other way. The reader sees the two characters going to university and through Gretchen’s perspectives we learn that the pair originally planned to go to the same university – Harvard – but Gretchen feared she would spend her time there focused entirely on Toni. Gretchen wanted the freedom to explore herself in an entirely new place with entirely new people and so applied (and got into) NYU. So there’s already some tension bubbling under the surface. As the story progresses, each chapter states how long it has been since the duo last saw each other.

Toni becomes involved with Harvard’s LGBT society where they meets a lot of interesting and diverse people. Being round this group and people gives Toni the freedom they’ve be waiting for to explore their identity. The most prominent internal monologue for me was this: “If I call myself trans I’m afraid people will think I’m a dude when truth is, I’m not really there.”

I found Toni a very frustrating character to read most of the time. They are relatively open with their gender, trying out different pronouns to see which best fits before abandoning pronouns only to use them again, which gives an insight into the thoughts of someone who identifies as non-binary. However, Toni is obsessed with putting other people into boxes and gets internally stressed when they can’t place people’s sexuality or gender. The most memorable scene that is an example of this is when some of the LGBT group are out together and Toni is unable to genderise a particular character until Toni spots the binder under the character’s shirt. They then automatically label them as trans and wonders if this character is on hormones and even internerally discusses with themselves how much this character “passes” as a specific gender.

(It actually reminded me of someone I used to know who would constantly force people into boxes. I had a conversation with them once about sexuality as I identify as bisexual and when I was asked if I’d ever date someone trans, I responded with “if I liked the person and enjoyed spending time with them, then yes. Genitals don’t matter to me” to which this person then said “well you’re pansexual then, not bisexual. But back to the actual review…)

Naturally Toni exploring their gender creates a big issue in their relationship with Gretchen because Toni never actually talks to Gretchen about well… anything. Toni lets Gretchen know they’ve started using pronouns, might try hormones but doesn’t actually discuss any feelings with Gretchen which ,as you would expect, feels like a punch in the face for her because she makes mistakes and Toni takes things badly. Something that’s pointed out later in the book when Gretchen says “you can’t be so hard on everyone, sometimes people make mistakes, say the wrong-” to which Toni responds “whatever” and shrugs it off.

It was really interesting seeing both sides of the relationship because Gretchen identifies as lesbian, but if her partner starts identifying as male and is thinking of transitioning, doesn’t that make Gretchen straight? This combined with the distance makes for a very stressful, complicated read but it felt real.

Anyone who’s ever had a distance relationship can relate to this: the time spent apart, wondering if anything will be different and if you’ve changed too much as people when you’re finally together.

The internal monologues of the characters -especially Gretchen – just added to the layers and I wanted to physically crawl into this book and just give Gretchen a hug.

You also have the horrific scenes where characters aren’t too accepting of trans people that just made me sick to read them, but you also had more accepting characters.

This book was just so well written.

If you are going to pick up any book in October, make sure you mark October 27th on your calendar because you don’t want to miss this book.

 

 
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Fans Of The Impossible Life – Kate Scelsa

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Blurb: “Mira is starting over at Saint Francis Prep. She promised her parents she would at least try to pretend that she could act like a functioning human this time, not a girl who can’t get out of bed for days on end, who only feels awake when she’s with Sebby.
Jeremy is the painfully shy art nerd at Saint Francis who’s been in self-imposed isolation after an incident that ruined his last year of school. When he sees Sebby for the first time across the school lawn, it’s as if he’s been expecting this blond, lanky boy with mischief glinting in his eye.
Sebby, Mira’s gay best friend, is a boy who seems to carry sunlight around with him. Even as life in his foster home starts to take its toll, Sebby and Mira together craft a world of magic rituals and impromptu road trips, designed to fix the broken parts of their lives.
As Jeremy finds himself drawn into Sebby and Mira’s world, he begins to understand the secrets that they hide in order to protect themselves, to keep each other safe from those who don’t understand their quest to live for the impossible.”

*I was sent this book by the publisher but this in no way affects my review*

As you can tell from the blurb, this story primarily follows three teenagers: Mira, Sebby and Jeremy. The book opens with the trio entering their first day of High School so you’re thrown straight into the action. Jeremy loves art and is told by Peter, one of his teachers, to help set up an extra curricular art club and to get at least ten signatures. In one of his classes he sees a girl and asks for confirmation that she’s called Mira. When she says yes, he asks if she would like to “fake sign up” to club (simply write down her details but not actually go). Shortly after, Sebby shows up and shares a funny greeting with Mira before turning his attention to Jeremy. When Sebby learns about the art club, he says he would like to join too.

Jeremy seems genuinely surprised when not only Mira and Sebby show up, but others too. They discuss plans for the group in way of an art exhibition. Rather unexpectedly for the trio, they find themselves communicating more outside the group and start spending a lot of time together. The premise of the art club reminded me a bit of The Breakfast Club only with a lot less detention.

The chapters are split into multiple character perspectives which allows you to explore the plot from different angles and get a closer insight into each character’s life. Mira’s chapters were the most interesting to read because she felt the most real. It’s something I’ve tried putting into words but I can’t really explain. She just felt 3D, while the other characters were more 2D.  Sebby’s chapters however, were really confusing and difficult to read because parts of them are in second person. It just didn’t really work for me.

It was nice to read about sex in this book. (I’m not perverted, I swear!)
I read a lot of teen books that mention the nerves around sex or pull a Stephanie Meyer leaving you with “…” before the morning after. The sex was blunt and unexpected at times. Which is how I assume young people are doing the frickle frackle these days.

As the plot continues moving forward, the characters also spend a lot of time with Peter and I’m not going to spoil it, but all I’ll say is that it reminded me a lot of the teacher at the end of The History Boys film.

By far my favourite part of this book was a chapter where the trio were sat talking about their fears. In this scene they really opened up to each other, showing how the trust has been built and they make a pact: “against all odds. May people look at us and wonder how such jewls can sparkle in the sad desert of the world. May we live the impossible life.”

Overall I was very underwhelmed by this book.
I just didn’t really enjoy it that much and I’ve come away having no intention to re-read it. That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It’s just not for me.

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Book To Movie Talk: The Scorch Trials

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*Warning: This post is not spoiler free*

When I see a trailer for a film and learn that it’s based off a book, if I’m interested in the premise, I read the book before seeing it. This was the case with The Maze Runner. However, this series is out of character for me in some elements: I read primarily YA, I love dystopian, but if it’s heavily sci-fi orientated, I tend to be put off by it. But there was something that compelled me to read The Maze Runner. I did and loved it. I watched the film and loved it just as much. But I wasn’t overly interested in reading the next book in the series The Scorch Trials until I discovered that it was being made into a movie. I did a review of the book which can be found here and based off the two, I much preferred The Scorch Trials.

The Scorch Trials movie was one of my most anticipated releases of the year. I went to see the movie and I am so horrifically disappointed.

While the film primarily follows the surviving “gladers”, we have some new additions:

Aris played by Jacob Lofland 

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Brenda played by Rosa Salazar

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Jorge played by Giancarlo Esposito

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Jansen played by Aidan Gillen

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I’ve seen a lot of reviews from fans of the book that seemed to really enjoy the film. This has left me feeling like I went to see a completely different film.

Brief overview of the book plot: The book opens after the gladers have been rescued from the Maze. Thomas wakes to find the facility being attacked by cranks (victims of the flare) and they escape to a common room area where they discover their rescuers are death. Along the way they discover a boy named Aris and learn that they weren’t the only Maze and that he is part of Group B, the gladers all have tattooes on their necks which read “Group A” and then a role. Thomas’ reads “Group A – to be killed by group B” They return to the common area to find the bodies of their rescuers are gone and in their place is one of the scientists from WICKED (Jansen) who tells them they have been infected with the Flare and have two weeks to get to the scorch (the outside world), and find a safe haven to get the cure. If they refuse, they will be shot.

The plot for the movie however, is completely different. It opens where The Maze Runner left off, with the gladers being rescued. They are taken to a facility where they are introduced to Jansen who tells them they’ve been rescued from WICKED. He shows them around the facility and they learn they weren’t the only maze.  Aris meets Thomas after climbing into his dormitory via the vents and tells him he has something to show Thomas. They learn that something is definitely not right and begin investigations through which they learn that Jansen is actually part of WICKED and working for Ava Page. Safe to say, this sends Thomas into panic mode and he hurries back to the dormitory to tell the other gladers.  A big action scene ensues where they try to escape as WICKED chase them until they willingly run out into the scorch.

Now, I’ve seen enough book-to-movie adaptations over the years to know that sometimes things get cut because they can slow down the pace of the film etc. but to completely change the entire plot arc and character motivations? What on earth were the people making this film thinking? Also, James Dashner was very involved with this movie as the Director kept him up to date on changes and asked his thoughts, so I have no idea how he agreed to these changes.

This alone ruined the film for me. The start in the book is gradual. You slowly uncover things and then BAM action. The film’s start was really rushed and it seems like they tried to include action but sacrificed the story in the process.
Winston’s death for example, in the book happens when they try to get through a storm. In the movie, he dies when he shoots himself after getting bitten by a crank (thus getting the flare) – note how this is completely irrelevant in the original plot as they have already been infected with the flare – The group is also considerably smaller: The leftover gladers, and Aris are the driving force for this movie. Along with Brenda.

Speaking of which, Brenda and Jorge want nothing to do with the gladers in the book when they know they’re from WICKED, Thomas convinces them to help by offering them some of the cure when they get to the safe haven. In the film, when Jorge learns they’re from WICKED he plans to use them to get into the “right arm” – the rebel army.

Personally, I just couldn’t get past the plot. The important explanations are missing and this film as a whole just makes the events of The Maze Runner completely irrelevant.

The only things I can say I enjoyed were the scene where they hung upside down which took a whole two days to film because they didn’t have stunt doubles and you can only last 3-4 minutes upside down before the blood rushes to your head. The other was Aidan Gillen. He was perfect in the role of Jansen and had fabulous screen presence and pretty much the only thing that stopped me walking out of the cinema.

I haven’t been this annoyed and disappointed at a film in so long that it actually doesn’t make me want to continue the series, and quite frankly I’m just going to pretend they made The Maze Runner and that was it.
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Asking For It – Louise O’Neill

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*Warning: This post is not entirely spoiler free*

Blurb: “It’s the beginning of summer, and Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful, happy and confident. One night, there’s a party. Everyone is there. All eyes are on Emma. The next day, she wakes on the front porch of her house. She doesn’t know how she got there. She doesn’t know why she’s in pain. But everyone else does. Photographs taken at the party show – in great detail – exactly what happened to Emma that night. But sometimes people don’t want to believe what’s right in front of them, especially if the truth concerns the town’s heroes…”

I first started hearing Louise O’Neill’s name a few months ago when everyone in the booktube / book blogging world was talking about her debut novel “Only Ever Yours” which was labelled as a “feminist Young Adult Novel.” This book sounded interesting because here we had a woman coming out with a book basically saying things most of us girls are too afraid to say except to each other for fear of being scorned. Sadly, with an intimidating TBR I just didn’t have time to pick it up (although I very much intend to). Then I started seeing Louise tweeting a lot using a hashtag #notaskingforit I discovered she had a new book coming out titled Asking For It and she had written an article talking about why she had decided to write it. After reading that, I knew I could not and would not miss out on reading this book.

The story is told from the perspective of teenager Emma O’Donovan who was certainly an interesting character to read. I’ve seen a lot of reviews where bloggers have said that if she was in any other YA novel, she would be the bitch in that stereotypical mean girl group roaming around the High School. While I can see why they thought that, I didn’t agree. Emma isn’t short of narcissistic comments via internal monologue – even about her best friends – but come on, who hasn’t heard someone say something – friend or not- and thought to ourselves “God that’s stupid” / “Wow she’s a bitch.”

The only issue I had with this book was that there wasn’t much physical description of the characters so I had to do a lot of filling in myself.This made the first 50 pages a struggle because I just couldn’t picture them yet.

To start with you have the general build up of characters and the way things are in this world. However, through little hints dropped via Emma’s internal monologue it is suggested that something bad happened to Jamie a while ago and Emma made her keep quiet about it. As the tension on this subject continues to build it’s finally revealed that Jamie thinks she may have been “that word” because while she didn’t say no, she didn’t exactly say yes either. (Issues of consent are so important with young people and bringing this up in a novel aimed at teens is ridiculously important) In Jamie bringing up this topic again, the reader learns that Emma told Jamie she should keep quiet about what happened because this boy was a) popular and b) on the football team and so by coming forward about the “that word” Jamie would ruin: his future, his chances of getting into university, everyone would hate her and she wouldn’t be invited to parties anymore.(Boom. Victim Blaming) Emma also adds “it happens all the time. You wake up the next morning, and you regret it or you don’t remember what happened exactly, but it’s easier not to make a fuss”. So the “that word” was kept quiet.

(Note: the reoccurring use of “that word” rather than “rape” is used very often in this book because the characters feel that once you say “rape” it’s out there and can’t be taken back so the easiest way to avoid it, is to not use the word at all- the word in itself is a taboo.)

It’s now time for the party mentioned on the blurb: Your good ole high school party with drinking and drugs and cute boys making those harmless “I’ve heard she’s easy” comments *eye roll* Emma gets drunk, flirts with some boys and has sex with one of them, fully aware he has a boyfriend. All the way through their intercourse she thinks about how she doesn’t want to really do it and is relieved when he finally *ahems* Moving on from alcohol to drugs offered, her vision starts to become hazy. Next thing she knows she’s woken up lying on her front porch severely sunburnt as she’s been asleep there all day. She has no memory of how she got there. Or what happened to her.

That is until she sees the Facebook page.
This part made me feel sick. But it is something that is actually happening out there. Social media makes it only too easy to spread rumours or in this case, pictures at lightening speed.

Her friends turn on her, downplaying her defense by saying she was clearly “out of it” and Jamie is only too happy to repeat some of Emma’s choice phrases back to her (It’s easier not to make a fuss, right?” The story then spirals into the media, becoming one of those horrific ones we often hear on the news for example the Mattress girl who said she would carry her mattress around her college campus with her until her rapist was charged or at the very least, expelled. She recently graduated…. with her mattress.

Emma is subjected to stories about her on chat shows as to whether she “told the truth” and people even taking sides with the boys who “that word” while a hashtag #IBelieveBallinatoomGirl trends on Twitter as the court case draws closer.

The review on the front of the book reads “O’Neill writes with a scalpel” and that is without a doubt the best way to sum this book up. O’Neill is not afraid to push this book out there with a very serious topic and bring to light the issues we so easily gloss over or try to avoid talking about.

We need to talk about consent.
We need to talk about the rape happening to young people.
We need to support them.
We need to believe.
We need to stop questioning whether they were “asking for it” before we decide to take their side.

As O’Neill says in the afterword:

“I see young girls playing in my local park and I feel so very afraid for them, for the culture that they’re growing up in. They deserve to live in a world where sexual assault is rare, a world where it is taken seriously and the consequences for the perpetrators are swift and severe. We need to talk about rape. We need to talk about consent. We need to talk about victim-blaming and slut-shaming and the double standards we place upon our young me and women. We need to talk and talk and talk until the Emmas of this world feel supported and understood. Until they feel like they are believed.”

I firmly believe this book is a step forward in helping the “emmas” of the world and if I had it my way, it would be made complusary reading in schools.

*Trigger Warning: due to the theme of this book if you are a victim of sexual assault or rape I would be wary about reading it as there are a lot of very explicit scenes*

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