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:

Read Diverse 2017

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Diversity Spotlight Thursday #1

Diversity Spotlight Thursday
Hosted by Aimal @ Bookshelves and Paperbacks

Finally, I’ve written a post Diversity Spotlight Thursday! The purpose of this meme is to share three diverse books: One you’ve read and enjoyed, one release that you haven’t yet read, and one that hasn’t yet been released. I actually enjoy reading this meme on other blogs. It’s a great way to promote diverse books and find new ones to add to the TBR. (I haven’t seen many posts about this lately so I’m not sure it’s a still a thing?? I like the idea anyway, haha.)

Read and Enjoyed: Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Amina's Voice

Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.

Goodreads | I’m also participating in the 2017 Diverse Reads Challenge, which has a theme for each month. I somehow mixed up April and May’s themes, which meant I read Amina’s Voice in April. (I had selected it to keep with May’s themes of ‘religious diversity’.)

I’m going to talk about this book from my personal perspective, a White girl who attended church as a kid. (I think this book would be a great read for Pakistani-American kids, but that’s not really my case to make.) Many of my friends also attended Sunday school. I didn’t know anyone who was particularly zealous about it. For most of us, it was just something we did. In Amina’s Voice, going to a mosque, participating in a religious community, etc. are everyday activities – ones that won’t seem so ‘foreign’ for church going kids.

Some of Amina’s problems come from those activities (she has to participate in a Qu’ran recitation competition but she has severe stage fright), but she worries about her friendships as much as you would except a middle grader to. The relationships Amina has with her friends and family felt very realistic. Her parents are positive figures in her life. In particular, I appreciated the missteps and assumptions she made about her friendships with Soojin and Emily. There is a lot for readers to connect with in this book, whether in the joys and trials Amina finds in her religion or in her relationships with friends and family.

The book that I should have read in April (mental health) but am going to read this month instead is…

Released but Not Yet Read: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again–but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.

When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.

Goodreads | More Happy Than NotTwitter brought Adam Silvera to my attention. I decided to give him a go for the Diverse Reads challenge, as I likely wouldn’t pick up his books otherwise (I’m not big on contemporary YA). I have heard a lot about his new release, History is All You Left Me, but MHTN’s premise appeals to me more. I always forget about that little scifi bit at the end – I’m definitely curious as to how it plays out.

Not Yet Released: the Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana

The Library of FatesNo one is entirely certain what brings the Emperor Sikander to Shalingar. Until now, the idyllic kingdom has been immune to his many violent conquests. To keep the visit friendly, Princess Amrita has offered herself as his bride, sacrificing everything—family, her childhood love, and her freedom—to save her people. But her offer isn’t enough.

The unthinkable happens, and Amrita finds herself a fugitive, utterly alone but for an oracle named Thala, who was kept by Sikander as a slave and managed to escape amid the chaos of a palace under siege. With nothing and no one else to turn to, Amrita and Thala are forced to rely on each other. But while Amrita feels responsible for her kingdom and sets out to warn her people, the newly free Thala has no such ties. She encourages Amrita to go on a quest to find the fabled Library of All Things, where it is possible for each of them to reverse their fates. To go back to before Sikander took everything from them.

Goodreads | That gorgeous cover and library reference in the title convinced me to add this to my TBR without even knowing what it is about. Look for it on July 18.

This post focuses all on 2017 releases. I hope to highlight more backlist diverse books in future posts. What books would you select for Diversity Spotlight Thursday? Leave a link in the comment if you’ve already written about it!
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Review: The Evolution of Alice by David A. Robertson

Author: David A. Robertson
Title: The Evolution of Alice
Format/Source: Paperback/library 
Published: 2014
Publisher: Highwater Press
Length: 203 pages
Genre: Indigenous fiction
Why I Read: Library browsing
Read If You: Like sombre, character-driven stories 
Quote: “Sometimes pain needed a quiet place to be, to spread out and get less sharp, I guess.” (25)
Rating:★★★★
Links: GoodReads | Chapters | Amazon

 This haunting, emotionally resonant story delivers us into the world of Alice, a single mother raising her three young daughters on the rez where she grew up. Alice has never had an easy life, but has managed to get by with the support of her best friend, Gideon, and her family. When an unthinkable loss occurs, Alice is forced onto a different path, one that will challenge her belief in herself and the world she thought she knew.

The province-wide On the Same Page programme encourages everyone in the province to read and discuss a book at the same time. Readers voted this year for The Evolution of Alice.The programme includes “author appearances and special events”, though unfortunately I won’t be able to attend any. I decided to read this book because 1)the summary + reviews on the back enticed me, 2) it’s the novel debut of a local Indigenous author whose graphic novels I previously studied and 3)I’ve never participated in On the Same Page.

Though the story pivots around an awful death and follows a family’s sorrows, I found the tale ultimately satisfying and uplifting because of its deeply realistic characters. They endure tragedy, yet  remain decent human beings. No nasty or vicious people populate this story when you might expect them. That’s not to say everyone is on their best behaviour at all times…only to say that here is a story about not about vile monsters or permanently shattered souls, but about real people realizing their flaws and their troubles and trying to do better.

The local setting injected a layer of reality to the story for me. I have an awkward prejudice against books explicitly set in my home area. I assume they’ll be boring and I feel weird when locations are specified. However, I appreciated the local setting in this story. I liked Robertson’s references to places I could recognize from context alone. For example, I know the city is where I live, I walk past the coffee shop across the street from the big department store on my way to university, and I can picture the bridge a woman prepared to leap from. Instead of thinking “Ugh, this is weird, I know that place” like I do when places are explicitly stated, I thought “Hey, I know where that is!” as I put together the cues to create a location in my mind. Having to recreate these familiar places made me feel more connected to the story and the characters’ experiences.  

I also appreciate that Robertson has written an Indigenous story that isn’t solely about Indigenous issues. This book can be read as a universal tale that could teach us something about empathy.  Indigenous people are not always ‘other’; we are all the same people. This makes the story highly relevant for my fellow citizens. (Last year an ‘infamous’ article was published about how my city is the most racist in the country for its attitude toward Indigenous peoples.) I don’t want to disvalue the differences between Indigenous and White experiences. However, I think in my province’s case, at this time, we may be better served in recognizing our similarities rather than allowing ourselves to become disenchanted when we perceive stereotypical differences.

Gideon’s first person narration about Alice comprises the bulk of the tale, shifting to third person about halfway through. Robertson intersperses vignettes and some longer chapters from other perspectives. Often these alternative chapters added another perspective to Gideon’s. My favourites were the chapters about Edward, who sees Kathy on the highway when she tries to run away, and Harvey, who briefly connects with Alice in the city. A few of the vignettes felt too disjointed from the main story, such as the boy who discovers his Cree heritage.

Finally, I found Gideon’s voice, and Robertson’s prose in general, soothing. It was very easy for me to read this book in a day. On the back of the book, Alison Gilmour describes Robertson’s voice as “immediate, unflinching, and emotionally generous.” I would “unpretentious” and “articulate”, though those words seem to fall short of what I’m trying to invoke! Perhaps this passage captures it, a little bit.

[Gideon speaks to Alice as she swings.] It was a long conversation to have that way, but as I heard more and more I wasn’t about to ask her to come down from the tire swing. Up there, she was safe, and the girls were safe and that was that. After she told me everything, she stopped pumping her legs, and after a few minutes her swinging settled into a light rocking. made our visit a lot easier. I saw her struggling with it a bit, her brain that is. So I decided to say something all Elder-like to her. I pointed to an old dirt road just about 20 yards to our right. It was pretty much grown over with grass, you could hardly see it, but it was still a road. It went right through the field, right up to the distant tree line, and got tinier and tinier on its way. “You know, my grandpa used to tell me that all the roads around here just lead us right back home,” I said. I wasn’t even sure what the connection was, and after I’d said it I kind of felt dumb about it. I tried to figure what I was getting at, for Alice and for me, so I added, “But, I don’t know, maybe he was wrong, maybe roads take us where we’re s’posed to be.” (21)

    The Bottom Line: A worthy selection for the province-wide book club. In The Evolution of Alice, Robertson has penned a vivid and moving story about Indigenous experiences that has relevancy for all readers.

    Further Reading: 

    Family Reads: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

     Welcome to Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live during the last week of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

    Reno: This post was meant to go up at the end of July, but evidently I didn’t finish it then…Well, here it is now! Let me introduce my final participant – my Dad! Dad chose this month’s book. I’d never read anything by Hosseini, so this was a good opportunity to give him a go.

    Dad: I wanted to read this book because I really liked The Kite Runner. I had also seen a lot of positive reviews about And the Mountains Echoed.

    I give this book 3 stars and Dad gives it 3.5 stars (he says, “I’m not a big reader, otherwise I might give it 4 stars. I re-read The Kite Runner but that was by accident. I started reading it, thought ‘Hey, this is familiar…’ and then kept reading it because it was good!”). This discussion was a little more challenging for us than the others – Dad doesn’t usually talk about the books he reads, and I don’t usually read this kind of story. But, that’s why I wanted to start doing these Family Reads! We both enjoyed reflecting on this book through conversation. You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (spoilers ahead!). Here’s our condensed discussion on chronology, characters, and how the stories fit together.

    They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.

    Dad: I liked the book because it’s about human interest, about real life, and I like those types of stories. For years I only read genre books like spy or mystery novels. Then I started reading more books like these – stories about ordinary lives. I found And the Mountains Echoed interesting and challenging because I was trying to understand what’s happening in the story, as it jumps around so much. The story’s kind of choppy; it can be very non-linear. Didn’t you wonder about how the character’s lives connect, how they might be introduced early on, you wonder how they connect, and then find out later on?
    Reno: I liked that interlocking component to the stories, but I wasn’t dying to figure everything out or actively put it together. What about you?
    Dad: No, I didn’t think too hard, either. I just read and thought, “Oh, that’s cool, I see” as things started to cohere. Like how you’re introduced to the doctor across the street, then you get a back story on him and how he connects to Nabi’s (and therefore Pari’s) story.
    Reno: That was the main story for me – Nabi and all the characters who are affected by his story – even if Pari seems to be the main connecting thread.
    Dad: I found it a bit confusing to keep track of Pari’s family.
    Reno: Yeah, the story of Adel and his Admiral dad really confused me. I’m not sure how it fit in. At first I thought the old man and his son fighting to get back their land were Saboor and Abdullah. It was someone related to them, but I can’t remember who or how. That story didn’t seem too integral – you could have skipped it and not missed anything.
    Dad: Mostly, though, I liked how the storytelling worked. You couldn’t predict where it was going.
    Reno: Yeah! Because you have so many characters working in different ways. But on the flip side, I found some of the stories didn’t really fit for me. Such as the Greek doctor and his childhood friend. It was kind of a long story… I guess it shows why Markos is in Afghanistan. I can feel my brain hurting trying to figure it out! Some people don’t like all the little stories. They think the book is too disconnected. What did you think?
    Dad: No, I thought it forced me to pay attention to what I was reading. I made notes, arrows of names and connections. …
    Reno: I should have done that, haha. It was okay while I was reading but now I’m forgetting names and who was who. Especially with the two Paris at the end!
    *We talked about Idris and Tamir’s story*
    Dad: So, how did that tie in?
    Reno: I guess that’s the big question about this book! How do all these stories tie in? They grew up across the street from Nabi, but it seems they have nothing to do with his story. It’s a good story on its own, but what’s the point of including their story in the novel? I guess you have to decide for yourself if you want to make the connections (hm, in this way maybe it is a bit like Annihilation!). I guess you can discount some stories more than others. Consider how you like the book and making connections but some stories you don’t even remember.
    Dad: I would reread it to understand the connections better. It’s not that I want to reread it because it was amazing.
    Reno: Hear hear.

     Have you anything by Hosseini? What would you add to our conversation?