I Have Many Thoughts on Radio Silence

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Radio Silence by Alice OsemanFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: 28 March 2017
Publisher: Harper Teen
Length: 474 pages
Genre: Contemporary YA
Rating: ★★★★½
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Radio Silence blew me away. I imagine it’ll be one of my favourite reads of the year. It’s a rare YA novel that I can objectively appreciate and also personally connect with. I have a lot of thoughts on this book. The following review is broken into four sections: representing the modern high school experience, atmosphere, racial and sexual diversity, and attending university.

Representing the Today’s High School Experience

Upon first seeing the author photo of Alice Oseman, I thought she looked really young. She is – she was born in 1994. (That’s my baby sister’s age?!) Oseman’s age goes a long way to explaining how Oseman wrote such a realistic novel. She lived her teen and uni years just as I lived them. I found the experiences described in Radio Silence to be spot on as to my coming of age years. This includes small things (such as certain mannerisms) and bigger things (such as engagement in online communities). Frances narrates with blunt and dry humour. There’s no sense of “Haha, I’m so awkward” that sometimes happens when authors try to recreate teen life. I’ve never read text message conversations that felt so real, like they were lifted straight out of a friend’s phone. (That’s one thing that can be particularly different for adult writers to get right, I’ve found).

Apart from accurately representing what it’s like to grow up in the 2010s, Radio Silence cut close to home for me in a couple other ways. Frances’ friends at school don’t really know her. They have one impression of her (boring and studious). She doesn’t know how to show them what she’s really like. They don’t believe that person (the real Frances) could exist. I felt that hard in my last years of high school/first years of uni. I changed, and my friends’ understanding of me took a lot longer to catch up. It was a frustrating time, and one I’ve not really seen depicted in YA before (admittedly, my YA scope is very small).

The other aspect of the book that I deeply related to was the lack of romance and the friendship between Frances and Aled. My best friend is a guy. It has taken many of years of us being ‘just’ friends for people to start accepting that there aren’t any romantic feelings between us. I would love to see more strong friendships, like Frances and Aled’s, in YA. The lack of romance also mirrors my high school experience. My friends and I didn’t date much; we weren’t searching for our one true loves. Our friendships were definitely more important than our romantic relationships at that time.

Atmospheric

Radio Silence captures a particular atmosphere that I hadn’t previously experienced in YA. The characters live in the real world, but the mystery of where Carys went and what Radio Silence (the underground YouTube podcast that the novel centers on) lends a mysterious air to the story. Oseman has said Welcome to Night Vale inspired Radio Silence – it definitely has a similar vibe. I’m also reminded of Stranger Things, with its focus on friendships in a spooky setting. Frances’ first person narration is down to earth and realistic, but it also gives a particular insight into one bright and creative girl’s mind.

Sexuality and Racial Diversity

I have a read few interviews with Oseman (who is White and British) where she stated she dislikes her debut novel Solitaire for its lack of racial diversity. She made a concentrated effort to improve diversity in Radio Silence. Frances is British-Ethiopian, with a White mother and an Ethiopian father (who does not play a role in the story). Frances’ race is not integral to the story (as it is, for example, in The Hate U Give).  As I am White myself, I don’t feel confident evaluating whether Frances is a good example of biracial representation. I applaud Oseman’s efforts to diversify her cast of characters, though. (Supporting characters include Daniel [Korean]  and Raine [Indian]).

The characters are also diverse in their sexuality. Frances is bisexual and Aled is asexual. Aled’s sexuality is something that he works out throughout the book. It’s not something that he immediately knows. Frances’ sexuality is similar to her racial identity, in that that’s just a part of her identity – it’s not a big deal. I appreciate the ace representation and normalization of bisexuality.

“You Don’t Have to Go to College”

 

I have mixed feelings on the “you don’t have to go to university” message. I agree that kids shouldn’t be pressured into attending university just because it’s the thing to do. A university degree does not guarantee employment, let alone employment in your desired field. University also isn’t the only choice for higher education. High school students should be made aware that they have a variety of options and that they they have the power in choosing what they want to do, be that art college or world travel or cabinet making or university. Personally, I think if you’re going to pursue further education, you should at least have some general idea of what you might want to do afterwards. I think few people are privileged enough to engage in higher education purely for education’s sake. My experiences with formal education have been thankully positive. I have always enjoyed being a good student, and I have always known the path I wanted to take through higher education (English degree, followed by MLIS, followed by career as a librarian). I am trying not to let my own experience colour my exploration of university in Radio Silence too much, as I understand my experience is the exception, not the norm. Now that I’ve laid out my general thoughts on the topic, here’s what I think about some characters’ attitudes towards university in Radio Silence.

This section contains spoilers for events towards the end of the novel.

I found Frances’ experience very sad. She had always been a committed student, not because she enjoyed education nor due to any pressure from friends or family, but because she just thought it was always what she had to do. Even with a mother encouraging her to take a break from studying and enjoy other aspects of life and a teacher encouraging her to pursue art, Frances committed herself to something that she didn’t really connect with. I wonder, how did she end up in that situation? How could that have been avoided? Aled, on the other hand, never actually wanted to go to university but pursued that path because of his abusive mother. Aled’s disdain for university felt more grounded to me than Frances’.

Carys gets her own paragraph. I hope I’m not being too cynical when I say I found Cary’s experience exaggerated. Carys fails all her exams in her final year of high school (I interpret this as meaning she didn’t graduate), yet manages to find a well-paid job in London, with no connections or experience. At one point, a character asks Carys how she got her job running workshops for the National Theatre without any qualifications (423). Carys replies that they didn’t ask her for any. And she doesn’t have any work experience. Really?

I imagine Carys’ situation is exceptional, not something high school students should count on. I don’t mean to come across as a person for whom school grades are the be all and end all. Some students will face immense pressure and difficulties in their high school studies. Some students won’t have access to resources that might have helped them succeed. Carys’ story, however, comes off to me as wishful thinking. I wouldn’t want students who are struggling in school to think, “Oh, I’ll just flunk my exams and get a great job with no qualifications or experience anyway”. Even though I have tried to not let my experiences influence my attitude towards Radio Silence’s university message, of course they have! So I’m curious – am I too biased in my assessment of Carys? What are your thoughts on higher education and finding employment?

Despite everything I’ve said above, I do think students face more pressure to go to university than they should. Radio Silence could and should be an eye opener for some students, whose talents and dreams can be found outside academia.

The Bottom Line:

Radio Silence exemplifies what contemporary young adult novels can be. Highly recommended for its realistic depiction of teen life, including diverse racial and sexual identities and commentary on the pressure to succeed academically.

Further Reading:

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5 Arctic Adventures from Icemen + The Luck of the Karluk

Icemen and The Luck of the Karluk

The Luck of the Karluk: Shipwrecked in the Arctic by L.D. Cross
★★★½ | GoodReads | Chapters | IndieBound | Wordery

Icemen: A History of the Arctic and Its Explorers by Mick Conefrey + Tim Jordan
★★★★ | GoodReads | No longer in print – check your library!

Icemen: A History of the Arctic and its Explorers is a great introduction to the topic of Arctic exploration. Originally published as a companion to a series on The History Channel, the book describes a number of incredible historical incidents in an intriguing and accessible manner. Ten chapters focus on either a particular explorer or expedition/historical incident, beginning with the lost Franklin expedition and concluding with the forced relocation of Inuit to the Arctic Circle. (I braced myself for a poor depiction of the Inuit, but Conefrey and Jordan have written respectfully about them, particularly in that final chapter.) The book could be used as a jumping off point for any number of topics you may wish to explore further. Icemen contains 29 black and white photos in the center of the book.  Published in 1998, this book is a wee bit dated but there are still many fascinating tales to be found within. Here are five events that I knew nothing about before reading this book:

1) Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897 (Chap. 4)

Did you know three men attempted to reach the North Pole via hot air balloon in the late 19th century? This photo was recovered from film found in the Arctic nearly 40 years later. I found the tale of what happened on their journey the most fascinating of all the stories.

Eagle-crashed

2) WWII in the Arctic (Chap. 8)

Did you know that Spitsbergen, an island in the Norwegian Arctic, played a role in World War II as Germany sought to establish weather reporting stations? There was a lot more happening up there than I knew about (granted, my knowledge of WWII is pretty lacking…).

German WWII weather station
German WWII weather station in Spitsbergen. From Spistbergen-Svalbard.com

3) 5 Weeks Buried in Snow (Chap. 7)

Did you know a man can spend 5 weeks alone buried under snow in his tent, and emerge alright? That was one tiny piece of the chapter (pg. 128) on Gino Watkin’s Greenland explorations,  but it’s the one that made my eyebrows jump the most, haha. Here he is shortly after emerging:

August Courtauld

4) Peary and Cook Rivalry (Chap. 2 and 3)

I knew of their rivalry in passing (mostly because of Captain Bob Bartlett’s involvement in Peary’s journey), but I didn’t really know what the fuss was about. Now I do! Peary and Cook both claimed to have been the first to reach the North Pole, resulting in a bitter rivalry between the former shipmates. Today, both of their claims are widely doubted.

Cook and Peary postcard
1909 postcard (via NunatsiqaOnline.com)

5) Airship Crossing of the North Pole (Chap. 6)

Did you know an airship reached the North Pole (having spent 60 hours in flight above the Arctic on a previous outing), only to meet a disastrous end due to inclement weather on the way back? My eyes bulged as I read that part of the airship broke off on ice, depositing ten men, while six men remained trapped on the airship as it floated off again, never to be seen again.
Bundesarchiv Bild 102-05738, Stolp, Landung des Nordpol-Luftschiffes "Italia"

 

6) The Karluk Disaster (The Luck of the Karluk)

Karluk enOne of my favourite tales of an Arctic expedition that Icemen does not mention (presumably due to the fact that it did nothing for exploration) is that of the Karluk. A brief summary: The Karluk was part of a poorly planned expedition to the Arctic. The ship became trapped in ice early in ts journey. The expedition leader abandoned the ship, leaving Captain Bob Bartlett in charge. The men journeyed across the ice and eventually reached a desolate island. Bartlett left the island to get help. The remaining men were rescued just over a year from when the ship was initially trapped.

The Luck of the Karluk is part of the Amazing Stories series from Heritage House, which Heritage House describes as “shorter narratives designed for younger readers, new Canadians and casual readers” [source]). That makes the book a good introduction to the Karluk if you aren’t familiar with the story. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know, but it’s still a great story and this makes for an easier reread than Jennifer Niven’s The Ice Master! The narrative is pretty factual (and thus less ‘biased’ than Niven’s book) – which is fine, because the facts of what happened are pretty gripping – though some authorial interjections crop up to add moments of colour to the narrative. I recommend Niven’s book for a more detailed look at the personalities of and relationships between those on board. Bartlett’s first hand account is also a must-read if the tale catches your interest.

Had you heard of any of these stories?  Which event would you be interested in reading about? Would you ever like to visit the Arctic?

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Returning to Cambodia in Vaddey Ratner’s Music of the Ghosts

Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

Music of the GhostsFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fiction/historical
Rating: ★★★★½
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I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Leaving the safety of America, Teera returns to Cambodia for the first time since her harrowing escape as a child refugee. She carries a letter from a man who mysteriously signs himself as “the Old Musician” and claims to have known her father in the Khmer Rouge prison where he disappeared twenty-five years ago.

In Phnom Penh, Teera finds a society still in turmoil, where perpetrators and survivors of unfathomable violence live side by side, striving to mend their still beloved country. She meets a young doctor who begins to open her heart, immerses herself in long-buried memories and prepares to learn her father’s fate.

Meanwhile, the Old Musician, who earns his modest keep playing ceremonial music at a temple, awaits Teera’s visit with great trepidation. He will have to confess the bonds he shared with her parents, the passion with which they all embraced the Khmer Rouge’s illusory promise of a democratic society, and the truth about her father’s end.

Vaddey Ratner, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime of 1970s Cambodia, has penned an extraordinary tale in Music of the Ghosts. She writes with grace about “questions of responsibility, atonement, forgiveness, and justice in the more everyday settings in which survivors find themselves(from the afterword). In exploring such questions, Teera, the Old Musician, and young doctor Narunn reflect on personal identity in the face of immeasurable loss. They have been shaped by survival, when so many of those whom they loved did not survive. Music of the Ghosts is a moving tale of resilience and reconciliation.

I have not read Ratner’s first book, In the Shade of the Banyan Tree, but I am certain this book must be a worthy successor. The first aspect of this book that struck me was the vivid prose. Ratner writes with a particular cadence that soothed me from the beginning, despite the subject matter. She does an excellent job at setting a scene. One small scene in particular stood out to me. She described two young monks practicing English at a temple, with a storm approaching. I could hear the sounds she described – rarely do I find prose that successfully reaches beyond the visual to the auditory for me.

The characters are what really gives life to the prose. I found Music of the Ghosts to be a deeply powerful and moving tale. Teera in particular tugged at my heartstrings and brought a few tears to my eyes. She felt like a real woman to me, not a stone cold caricature of a ‘strong’ one. I adored Narunn, a sincere man trying to do the best with what he has. These characters will draw out your compassion. Teera’s dealing with the complexities of survivor’s guilt moved me. In one scene, she wants to stop her car and give money to numerous beggars on the street, in a location so far from anything she can’t imagine how they’re surviving out there. I felt as Teera did in this moment – how can I have so much when others have so little?

The character’s past connections to the Khmer Rouge (as either perpetrators or victims) demonstrate how good and evil cannot be simplified to black and white. The lines between victim and perpetrator can blur. A person can easily shift from being one to the other. Partway through chapter three, I already found the story to be very intense in this manner. Later on in the book, I had a moment of, “Imagine if everyone listened.” What if we listened to voices other than our own? If everyone heard the voices that are too often silenced or ignored? Reading a good story, like this one, can so easily teach empathy to an open mind. Through reading, we can learn about what we didn’t know we didn’t know. This concept, I think, is part of the reason why reading own voices is so important.

I have one mild criticism of the book. The story feels a bit dry at times. I wondered when Teera’s story would pick up again. I set the book aside for a few days, not feeling any rush to finish. But the haunting tale pulled me back as I wondered what the Old Musician would reveal to Teera.

The Bottom Line:

On her website, Ratner notes that Music of the Ghosts address universally significant questions such as, “How do we account for the crimes we have committed knowingly, and for the suffering we contribute to perhaps without knowing? What does it take to atone? What is possible to forgive?” Music of the Ghosts clear and emotional take on these questions make it a read worth your time.

Further Reading:

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Will I See? A Graphic Novel about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Will I SeeAuthor: David A. Alexander Robertson
Illustrator: GMB Chomichuk
Title: Will I See?
Format/Source: Paperback/Purchased
Published: March 2017
Publisher: Highwater Press
Genre: Graphic novel
Rating: ★★★★
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May, a young teenage girl, traverses the city streets, finding keepsakes in different places along her journey. When May and her kookum make these keepsakes into a necklace, it opens a world of danger and fantasy. While May fights against a terrible reality, she learns that there is strength in the spirit of those that have passed. But will that strength be able to save her?

How many graphic novels have been written about missing and murdered Indigenous woman (MMIW)? I am aware of two, both written by local Cree author David A. Robertson. Highwater Press published Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story in 2015. Helen was 19 years old when she was violently abducted and murdered in the 1970s. Robertson has commented, “Her story is one of the first times that, as a country and as a province of Manitoba, we became aware of things that were happening with our Indigenous women” (HuffPost). Now Robertson has collaborated with one of my favourite local comic illustrators, GMB Chomichuk, to create a graphic novel based on a story by IsKwé (a singer with Cree, Dené and Irish roots).

I attended the book’s Winnipeg launch last month, where I learnt a lot about the book’s collaborative creation. IsKwé contacted Robertson because she was interested in an illustrated video for one of her songs, and the collaboration eventually grew to a graphic novel. Two songs by IsKwé inspired Will I See?. She wrote the songs in response to the 2015 murder of Tina Fontaine, a young Indigenous girl. I had the privilege of hearing IsKwé perform “Nobody Knows” at the launch. You know when a friend goes on and on about how some song is so great, they loved it, it’s the best, and you say “Sure, I’m sure it’s nice”, but you think to yourself it’s probably just the same as any other good song? That’s how I felt listening to Robertson and Chomichuk discuss “Nobody Knows”. But then I heard IsKwé perform it and whoa. I was blown away. The power and emotion that came out of her was incredible. I don’t think I’d ever heard another song like it.

 

Chomichuk’s gritty black and white images suit the story’s mood. He is known for more fantastical illustrations, often featuring monsters you’re glad don’t exist in real life. There are still monsters to illustrate in Will I See?, ones that are more terrifying because they do exist. Chomichuk touched on this in discussion at the launch. How do you illustrate real life monsters? Those monsters, the men, are never depicted too clearly. Red is used sparingly to great impact throughout the gray scale pages. Will I See‘s images pack a punch and though they can be disturbing, I think/hope most readers will not find them too graphic.

I don’t have much to say about the story itself that the description above doesn’t cover. This is a short story, and I don’t want to spoil it with too many words. The story is naturally dark because of its subject matter. The narration style and panel layouts meant it took me a few reads to feel like I really understood what the story was about. It doesn’t offer false hope (the tragedy of MMIW will not be resolved over night), but there is positivity in the relationship between May and her kookum (grandmother).  Notes in the back provide details on spirit animals, the seven teachings, and medicine bags. For readers who may just be beginning to learn about MMIW, a more detailed afterword may have been helpful.

The Bottom Line:

A graphic novel about missing and murdered Indigenous women is not going to be your easiest read. But Will I See? offers a vivid story and a strong way to open up discussion of a topic that should not be ignored.

Further Reading:

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This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint – “Papers, Pixels, and the Lasting Impression of Books”

Gutenberg's Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds

Format/Source: Hardcover/Publisher
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/memoir
Rating: ★★★★
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I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Four seismic shifts have rocked human communication: the invention of writing, the alphabet, mechanical type and the printing press, and digitization. Poised over this fourth transition, e-reader in one hand, perfect-bound book in the other, Merilyn Simonds — author, literary maven, and early adopter — asks herself: what is lost and what is gained as paper turns to pixel?

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint trolls the past, present, and evolving future of the book in search of an answer. Part memoir and part philosophical and historical exploration, the book finds its muse in Hugh Barclay, who produces gorgeous books on a hand-operated antique letterpress. As Simonds works alongside this born-again Gutenberg, and with her son to develop a digital edition of the same book, her assumptions about reading, writing, the nature of creativity, and the value of imperfection are toppled.

In 2011, author Merilyn Simonds partnered with Hugh Barclay, the one-man wonder behind Thee Hellbox Press, to produce a limited run of The Paradise Project. Simonds agreed to the printing at Barclay’s urging. He wanted to print a collection of her short stories. Barclay introduces Simonds to the finer details of book printing, which she explores in Gutenberg’s Fingerprint. In following the development and creation of The Paradise Project, Simonds describes the history of book making. She also reflects on what has (and hasn’t) changed with the shift to digital books, as she and her son work on creating an ebook of the Paradise Project.

Four sections of the book focus on stages of a book’s creation – paper, type, ink, and press. Barclay is the star of these pages. His enthusiastic and creative personality bring the task to life. He is a tinkerer full of ideas, with the intelligence and ambition to bring those ideas to fruition. In Barclay’s small printing workshop, each stage is given careful consideration. What colour should the ink of be? What impression will the endpapers give? How will the type be set? How can images be incorporated?

Simonds explains the complexities that inventors throughout history had to be overcome to make each element work together and produce a legible book. Most of her exploration focuses on the print run of The Paradise Project. Simonds also includes comments to contrast the development of the ebook, a format which has both pros and cons over a printed book.  The Paradise Project sounds like a lovely work of art. I would to get my hands on a copy, to see and feel all the care that went into making it. Gutenberg’s Fingerprint includes a few black and white photographs, but they don’t do the work justice. You can view full colour images of the completed work at Thee Hellbox Press website.

Simonds delves further into reflection in the final two sections, “Book” and “Lasting Impressions”. I found her balanced view of ebooks refreshing. Simonds loves her physical books, as many of us book lovers do, but she does not deny the advantages of ebooks. She goes beyond acknowledging the practicalities of digital reading (such as being able to carry numerous books or customize the formatting for reading comfort). For example, she notes that more voices in publishing (via digital self-publishing) cannot be a negative thing. She discusses the potential of ebooks to make a wider variety of stories available to a wider variety of people. Simonds quotes Kamila Shamsie:

Are we hearing all the complex, nuanced human voices we need to help us understand our own times, our fellow citizens, the world in which we live? No. But we could. And we must. And that should be publishing’s bottom line. (341)

Yet physical books (for Simonds, at least) easily win in the debate about superiority. I have never heard someone put it so clearly or simply than when she writes, “We are more than brains: we have ears, noses, fingertips, all of which engage with a physical book” (351). What sparks that particular feeling of joy we may find when we gaze happily at our bookshelves?

My books are my brain and my heart made visible. (366)

The Bottom Line:

Simonds chronicles the exquisite print run and ebook development of her short story collection The Paradise ProjectGutenberg’s Fingerprints gives book lovers food for thought as to what it is we love about physical books and what digital books have to offer us. Simonds leaves no doubt that print books will likely endure, but does leave room to ponder – what may come next?

Further Reading:

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