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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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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Celebrating Elizabeth Goudge

Hosted by Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

Back in March, Lory announced she would once again be inviting readers Elizabeth Goudgeto celebrate the birthday of Elizabeth Goudge by reading one of her works and sharing their thoughts. I hadn’t heard of Goudge, so I ventured over to Wikipedia and learnt that one of the works she is most known for is called The Little White Horse, a children’s novel I would classify as a mix between historical and fantasy. Although this book won’t appeal to everyone due to its particular tone and simple plot, I found it a comforting read.

When orphaned young Maria Merryweather arrives at Moonacre Manor, she feels as if she’s entered Paradise. Her new guardian, her uncle Sir Benjamin, is kind and funny; the Manor itself feels like home right away; and every person and animal she meets is like an old friend. But there is something incredibly sad beneath all of this beauty and comfort—a tragedy that happened years ago, shadowing Moonacre Manor and the town around it—and Maria is determined to learn about it, change it, and give her own life story a happy ending. But what can one solitary girl do?

This book kept me grounded this week. I had just begun to take my apartment search to the next level by scheduling a few viewings. I had always known this would be the most stressful part of the ‘getting into grad school’ process. Starting the search made that really sink. The point being, I read The Little White Horse when my mind was all abuzz with concerns of practical adult life. Although I found it difficult at times to focus, this lovely little tale kept me grounded by being the just what I needed to put my head in the clouds. 😉

Despite the title, the ‘little white horse’ plays only a small role in the story. The conflict stems from historical family feuds, with Maria stepping into the role of the one who can finally set everything right. That story is simple enough and resolved relatively easily. What I enjoyed most about this book are the descriptions of the Kindgom of Moonacre. Maria finds herself in a wonderful world, tucked away in its own corner of England. I think many lovers of fantasy would be happy to trade places with Maria, to experience the decorated manor, homecooked meals, and beautiful woodlands would appreciate the scenes depicted in this book. Illustrations by C. Walter Hodges compliment the mood of the story. I particularly liked the map of Moonacre Manor.

Some aspects of the story feel dated. 10 year old me, accustomed to the middle grade fantasies of the nineties, probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this book.  There is some emphasis on God, and womanly duties (though Maria certainly isn’t constrained by them – I think she exemplifies how a character can be feminine and still a hero). The talk of marriage between Maria and Robin felt a bit out of place. But these things all gave the book a unique sort of charm, different from the sorts of contemporary fantasies I read today.

I’m glad I picked up this book. This is one of those little gems I wouldn’t have stumbled upon without book blogging. Goudge has a number of other novels, including more children’s. I wonder how her other works compare to this one… Have you read anything by Elizabeth Goudge? Check out Lory’s blog tomorrow (Friday) for a wrap-up of Goudge Reading Day posts. 

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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!