ACT COOL by Tobly Smith – double review!

A trans teen walks the fine line between doing whatever it takes for his acting dream and staying true to himself in this moving, thought-provoking YA novel from the acclaimed author of Stay Gold.

Aspiring actor August Greene just landed a coveted spot at the prestigious School of Performing Arts in New York. There’s only one problem: His conservative parents won’t accept that he’s transgender. And to stay with his aunt in the city, August must promise them he won’t transition.

August is convinced he can play the part his parents want while acting cool and confident in the company of his talented new friends.

But who is August when the lights go down? And where will he turn when the roles start hitting a little too close to home?


Title : Act Cool
Author : Tobly Smith
Format : ARC/Hardback
Page Count : 352
Genre : LGBTQIAP+ contemporary YA romance
Publisher : Quill Tree Books/Harper 360YA
Release Date : September 7, 2021

Reviewer : Hollis / Micky
Rating : ★ ★.5  / ★ ★ .5


Hollis’ 2.5 star review

I said this in another queer YA contemporary review recently that it’s important for queer and trans characters to have messy love lives, or messy stories, or just be messy, because so many of those stories already exist for straight and cis-gendered content.

However, queer or not, messy doesn’t always make it easy to love.

August is a trans boy who has recently run away from tinytown, Pennsylvania to not only avoid conversion therapy as a result of his religious parents rejecting his identity but also to attend a prestigious acting school in New York courtesy of his aunt’s connections. Suffice it to say August is going through it. He has baggage. He’s recently transitioned, come out, and he’s dealing with a new city, new school, and finally being his authentic self. Sorta. But because of all that, because he’s new to almost every aspect of his life, he’s also changing personas the way most people change shirts. This makes August a difficult character to get a read on. 

Now, listen, I get it, I’m old now but I was hip and young once. I understand the concept of having a different angle with different groups; hell, most of us still have elements of that to our personality : it’s called work and home life. However.. this isn’t just August at Home vs August at School. This is too many Augusts; funny guy, serious guy, acting guy, flirting guy, humble guy.. again, how am I supposed to know who I’m reading about if he’s just a mask?

Eventually this does phase out when he addresses it, or rather when he gets called out of it multiple times and then addresses it, and again, so much of it is understandable. But it’s also hard.

August gets caught up in the buzz and high of being well liked and successful, focusing on followers and curating his social media presence, lying about not reading the articles and posts about him, because he happens to land a starring role in his school’s play and then another opportunity shortly thereafter. Naturally.. things go to his head and he becomes outright unlikeable. 

Which phases into the next thing I disliked. All the lies. Again, tied into his shifting in and out of being who he thought he had to be in the moment.
Probably it’s just that, as much as I could empathize for August’s struggle and what he had endured, and what he was going through in general, I never liked him. Infact, the only characters I loved (yes, I did love some!) were August’s aunt and his trans fairy-godmother, Juliet. A+, five stars, for both of them. Everyone else.. meh? They were just too much drama for me, not going to lie, and that probably tied into why I wasn’t down for any of the various romances. Besides the fact that none of them were particularly well developed.

I have also found with previous stories that focus this much on theatre or acting just don’t interest me. And there was a lot of that in this one. Not helped, too, by August assuming his way was the right way to do things despite the advice of his teachers or discussion with peers — you know, at the prestigious school he probably didn’t deserve to be at and clearly didn’t respect enough — which also does get addressed, in a rather heartbreaking way, but it was one more thing that added to the arrogance and frustration around his character.

Much of the narrative in Act Cool is about getting transpeople other narratives that aren’t necessarily defined by their being transgender, telling different and happier stories, in addition to representation in general. And then there’s also the emphasis on found family and finding those who will accept you no matter what.There’s a lot of great in here. I just had to sift through a lot of less great to appreciate it.

That said, if you’re looking for a diverse YA contemporary, with drama and romance that does get a wee bit messy and soap opera-y, but with some heavier themes to keep it from being too frothy, you could definitely do worse than picking this one up. But if you hate theatre or Broadway.. maybe avoid.

** I received an unsolicited ARC from the publisher (thank you!) and this in no way influenced my review. **


Micky’s 4.5 star review

Headlines:
Drama on and off the stage
Tough but still uplifting
Shitty parents

Call me enchanted by Tobly McSmith’s writing and stories, because this is the second book of his that has drawn me in, made me love all the things and left me thinking. Act Cool was the kind of story that had tough themes (and I expected it this time) but it is also a hugely uplifting and empowering read. It transports you into the world of August and for me, I became his cheer team.

August was a character that jumped off the page with his raw feeling, his ability to trust, his naivety as a trans character and his desire to be accepted. August was the unfortunate owner of some top-form shitty parents. I hated them, as I should, but these kind of ignorant folks exist, they’re not an illusion and they are harmful. Hooray for Aunt Lil to offset some of that.

August’s journey through a performing arts school, fresh opportunities and finding his feet with being a man was just 100% absorbing. The crew around August were a dramatic bunch and he spent time sussing out who was friend, foe or both. I really warmed to the side characters and even Mr Daniels. The performing arts backdrop, Broadway and how those themes intersected with August facing his gender dysphoria was emotional; I was gripped.

There were a number of quotes I tabbed, probably all a bit spoilery to share but amongst the witty banter, the fun of school life were deep thoughts, the odd profound inner monologue and interaction with others.

I simply loved this book, it made my Saturday and I avidly await Tobly McSmith’s next book.

Please do check out some trans reviewers for this book.

Thank you to Pride Book Tours and Harper 360YA for the review copy.

STAY GOLD by Tobly McSmith

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?

Funny and poignant, clear-eyed and hopeful, Stay Gold is a story about finding love—and finding yourself.


Title : Stay Gold
Author : Tobly McSmith
Format : Paperback
Page Count : 384
Genre : Contemporary YA/LGBTQIAP+
Publisher : Quill Tree Books
Release Date : September 2, 2021

Reviewer : Micky
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★.5


Micky’s 4.5 star review

Headlines:
Being a man
Being respected
Being brave
Tissues needed

This book grew and grew to steal my heart completely. This was a gently building story but it hit such a cresendo of feelings, I was almost overwhelmed. You need to know going into this that there are triggers a-plenty (feel free to DM me or check other reviews).

Pony was a stunning character, starting afresh as a male and he wanted to pass, without any drama. That whole approach came with a bucket load of problems which on the one hand Pony took in his stride but my heart hurt for him. His connection with Georgia, the cheerleader was sweet and real. What I particularly liked about this story of these two, was the reality, the rejections, the learning, the raw-ness.

The was a really difficult background story with Pony’s family but he had the sister of sisters in Rocky. She was an epic character. Max, his trans friend really upset me with his actions and that whole plot had me angry and crying.

That was only the start of my crying jag because this story hit a realistic fever pitch that shredded my emotions. I felt every single pain in my heart.

Stay Gold was a beautiful story despite it’s heartbreak. I will remember this story, these characters and I have learnt a little more of the experiences of trans people through Pony. This was beautifully written and had a light-hearted feel to it through Pony’s character which really balanced the tough stuff. I highly recommend this book.

Thank you to Pride Book Tours and the publisher for the review copy.

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