Radio Silence

TRIGGER WARNING: There is an emotionally abusive parent in this book.

What if everything you set yourself up to be was wrong?

Frances is a study machine with one goal. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside. Then Frances meets Aled, and for the first time she’s unafraid to be herself.

So when the fragile trust between them is broken, Frances is caught between who she was and who she longs to be. Now Frances knows that she has to confront her past. To confess why Carys disappeared.

Frances is going to need every bit of courage she has.

Engaging with themes of identity, diversity and the freedom to choose, Radio Silence is a tour de force by the most exciting writer of her generation.

20170714_125454[1]

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman is a complicated world of inclusivity, art, heartbreak and abuse wrapped up in one of the most compelling coming-of-age stories I have read in a long time.

Can I be super honest about something? When I opened the book and read that Oseman is only 21-years-old, I wanted to hate Radio Silence. The fact of her set every alarm bell in my head screaming: FAILURE. But then I remembered that thing I read somewhere that said everybody is on their own timeline, and tried very hard to put it to the back of my mind. Like I have to do every time I read something written by Tavi Gevinson. Sometimes you have to love the thing more than the thing makes you feel bad about yourself, because if I had decided not to read this book, I would have missed out.

Radio Silence is a character driven contemporary that rejects the heteronormativity and romance that dominates the genre. It presents us with a familiar situation: outcast girl meets outcast boy, sets the scene for what we expect to be yet another epic teen romance and then denies us. Frances explains it best: “You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl. I just wanted to say – We don’t. That’s all.”

Oseman does this throughout the novel: she acknowledges our assumptions – of straightness and whiteness, etc – gives them some serious side eye, and then blasts past them in order to let her characters be their fully expressed selves.

This rejection of ‘traditional’ narrative is also apparent in the writing itself. Radio Silence is a book concerned with options and with identity and even the structure of the book demonstrates this. Each part of the novel is identified with a school term and that term is then separated into parts a, b, and c. It reminded me of an exam, where you get to choose whether to answer question a, b or c and was reflective of the way in which Frances, Aled and their friends were choosing which life to lead: one where they lived up to the expectations of their parents/themselves, one where they lived in the way they wanted to while appearing to live up to expectations of their parents/themselves, or one where they threw it all out the window and instead decided to live a life they really truly wanted.

Radio Silence also engages with online culture in a very authentic and satisfying way. The book is set around a Welcome To Nightvale-style podcast that Aled and Frances work on together, and through that story, Oseman analyses the positives and negatives of online life, particularly for those who have gained a following. On the one hand, we see a space where people get to express themselves and their identities in a way they might not be comfortable to do at school – Universe City, Aled Last’s podcast has a gender neutral narrator – but on the other, a world in which people receive death threats by strangers who have decided their identity is offensive. Oseman presents a volatile space and asks us to see the positive in it. After receiving a death threat, Aled tells his boyfriend that he’s demi-sexual, an identity he learned of online and that opened up an understanding of himself he had never had before. Negative offset by positive.

It’s an empowering read that resists tropes at every step from its dissection of the joys and heartbreak of platonic love to its unique take on intelligence in all its forms. You will finish Radio Silence with a little bit more hope than when you started.

The Wangs vs the World

Charles Wang is angry at America.

America had promised him the dream, a beautiful life full of mansions, yachts and sports cars. But it’s 2008, the world has been rocked by a financial crisis and Charles has lost everything. His last resort is to make a claim on his lost ancestral lands in China, but first he must set off on an epic road trip across America to collect his family. His second wide, Barbra, believes she only married Charles for his money; his son Andrew, a wannabe comic, is forced to drop out of college; and his youngest, Grace, thinks the trip is nothing more than an elaborate plan to teach her the value of money. His eldest daughter, disgraced art world It Girl Saina, seems to be the family’s only hope, but her own life is in tatters too.

Funny, fast paced and addictively readable, The Wangs vs the World is a gripping portrait of contemporary America, which asks whether anyone can truly feel at home in the post-financial crash world.

the-wangs-vs-the-world

The Wangs vs the World by Jade Chang  gave me some seriously mixed feelings. While there was much about the book that I liked, the darker aspects of the plot made me uncomfortable in a way that sadly dominated the second half of the narrative for me.

Jade Chang is such a witty writer. Her approach to family life is sharp and empathetic, using a multiple POV narrative that works really well. Each member of the Wang family is complex and believable, from Grace, a sixteen-year-old fashion blogger, to her stepmother Barbra, the smartest and most disregarded Wang. Chang regularly incorporates untranslated Mandarin into the narrative, particularly when characters were expressing love toward each other which felt very natural. Her approach to race is interesting, particularly in the narratives of Grace and Andrew. Andrew is an aspiring comedian whose set revolves around poking fun at racist stereotypes (in such a way that perpetuates them – his entire set is designed for racist white people, so far as I could tell. It was a really interesting look at how racism affects identity), while Grace dreads the inevitable moment someone (a white person) asks, but where are you from?

As I mentioned, there was an event in this book that made me really uncomfortable – and even though it is only a short part of it, the scene that really defined my reading experience. Before I talk about it, it’s necessary for me to warn that it involves discussion of sexual assault, and that in talking about it I will be looking at plot points that could be considered spoilers, so if you’d rather avoid that – which is totally fine, I understand – you should probably stop reading now.

Andrew Wang is a virgin. He’s had girlfriends and spends a lot of time lying in bed with mostly naked women, but he doesn’t want to actually have sex until he’s in love. He’s 21, and he hasn’t been in love yet. I would classify the way that Andrew eventually loses his virginity as sexual assault. It’s with this much older woman who blind folds him and binds his hands – which he’s initially okay with – but who ignores him when he tells her that he doesn’t want to have sex until he’s in love. She has sex with him anyway, and Andrew spends the following weeks trying to convince himself that they are in fact in love. The sexual assault is never actively discussed. I found this really upsetting to read. It made me uncomfortable in a way that coloured my reading of the rest of the book.

The literature student half of my brain wants to call this good writing. The truth is that sometimes consent can be murky (although an involuntary physical reaction should NOT be interpreted as consent), sometimes the rapist wouldn’t believe they did anything wrong and sometimes the victim would question whether what happened to them was rape in the first place (Andrew never even did this. He just never thought about it or mentioned it again). It’s true that a lot of people would try and pretend it didn’t happen, wouldn’t tell anyone and would simply move on with their life as if everything was the same. It’s true, perhaps especially if that person happened to be a man.

But the personal part of my brain wanted Andrew to tell someone. I wanted the language of sexual assault to be used, which it never was. I wanted footnotes with giant letters screaming THIS IS WRONG. THIS IS RAPE. I also, to be totally honest, wanted some warning that this scene was coming. Previously when I’ve read books concerned with sexual assault I’ve known what I was walking into, which gave me the opportunity to prepare, whatever that even means. It made me grateful for trigger warnings.

It was just such an odd piece in a book that had previously been so natural, so unafraid of confronting racism, immigrant experience and the shitshow that was 2008, to have this unaddressed sexual assault (which a review I read simply referred to as ‘Andrew’s hapless love life’ WTF!?).

It made me question how sexual assault is written, if there is a way it should be approached – should we always name it when it’s there? I’m inclined to say yes, but I’m open to arguments (sensitive, empathetic and respectful arguments). I also wonder how this scene might have been different if Andrew were a female character.

Have you read The Wangs vs the World? How did you interpret Andrew and Dorrie’s relationship? Do you think that the sexual assault should be discussed in the narrative? I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts. This is a book I’d like to talk about more.

Swing Time

Two brown girls dream of being dancers – but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey wants to make it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighbourhood far behind, travelling the world as PA to famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one per cent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey – the same twists, the same shakes – and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the musical of time.

swing-time

Swing Time was actually my first Zadie Smith novel. I studied her short story (which is actually pretty long) The Embassy of Cambodia for a class I took at university and always intended to delve further into her work but never got around to it for some reason. When I read her conversation with Lena Dunham in Lenny, I realised the time had come. I also had a gift card left over from Christmas perfect for buying myself a beautiful but painfully expensive hardback. So I went for it.

Swing Time is a novel consumed by questions of race, class, motherhood, success and female friendship. Smith explores these themes using the parallel experiences of the unnamed narrator and her childhood best friend, Tracey. Both girls grow up on the same London estate but go on to radically different adult lives. Tracey, the dancer, never leaves the estate and finishes the novel a single parent with mental health issues. The unnamed narrator on the other hand, after leaving the estate for university and becoming the personal assistant to world-famous musician Aimee and travelling the world with her, ends up publicly disgraced, unemployed and only a few miles from where she started.

Both women would probably regard the other as having the worse deal.

‘I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.’

One of the aspects of this novel that intrigued me the most was the way we imagine the lives of other people. The most obvious and in many ways most pressing example of this was Aimee’s mission to ‘help the children of Africa’, which she did with no regard to the political situation of Gambia (they were getting into bed with a regime that was not interested in the wellbeing of its people) or even the needs of the small community the school was built to serve (her school was for girls only – the incorrect assumption being the boys were already taken care of). The end result of the school was the village suffering even more financial hardship than before, as the government viewed it as being taken care of by Aimee’s foundation, and consequently removed the little financial aid it had in place. Aimee was doing nothing to break the cycle of poverty, but despite the narrator’s (frustratingly few) attempts to make her see the truth she remains stubbornly disinterested – consumed with Lamin, her Gambian lover, rather than the school that brought her to the country in the first place.

Even after witnessing this, the narrator is not immune from similarly grand fantasies. In the final chapters of Swing Time, when she’s finally back in London and confronted with Tracey’s fractured mental health and poor family, she imagines a world in which she adopts Tracey’s children as her own as if that were anything like a solution.

All of this imagined good is contrasted with snippets into the life of the narrator’s mother. The narrator holds a great deal of resentment toward her mother, who spent her childhood buried in books rather than taking her daughter to dance class. What it resulted in, though, was an adult life as a crucial pillar of the community, a member of parliament who spent her career communicating with her people and working to make life better for them based on their requests rather than some imagined scenario. Our impression of the narrator’s mother is so consumed by her resentment toward her that it’s difficult to see her work for what it is, but when you peek around all that anger and resentment she is revealed as the most active character in the novel.

While I enjoyed most of the story, Swing Time was difficult for me in places. What the narrator says of herself at the beginning, about attaching herself to the light of others rather than creating her own proves true, resulting in what is at times a main character who is oddly disengaged from the events of her life. She doesn’t seem to really seek deep feeling and cuts those who produce it from her – mostly her mother and Tracey, although also latterly her father – from her life. There are some moments of great sadness in the novel that are glossed over, as if she is somehow numb to them, or has perhaps numbed herself deliberately. The effect of this on me was to make it difficult to feel as I wanted for her, and her experiences. There were parts of the book that left me a little flat, which frustrated me.

Overall though, Swing Time is a rich and interesting novel, and one that despite my issues with it, I can see myself returning to in the future.

A Reading List (Hastily compiled, somewhat diverse)

I see many posts on Twitter asking for diverse reads. Nobody asked me, but I thought I would make a list of a few of my favourite books from and about marginalised voices and experiences. Mostly fiction, a little non-fiction thrown in. I’ll link either to goodreads or my own reviews.

diverse-reads

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

Americanah – Chimanada Ngozi Adichie

How To Say I Love You Out Loud – Karole Cozzo

She Is Not Invisible – Marcus Sedgewick

The Sun is Also a Star – Nicola Yoon

Lies We Tell Ourselves – Robin Talley

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

The Wangs VS The World – Jade Chang

I am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban – Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Angry White People: Coming Face to Face with the British Far Right – Hsiao-Hung Pai

After Alice – Gregory Maguire

The Colour Purple – Alice Walker

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Why Not Me? – Mindy Kaling

 

The Sun is Also a Star

THE STORY OF A GIRL, A BOY, AND THE UNIVERSE

NATASHA: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

DANIEL: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store – for both of us.

THE UNIVERSE: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lies before us. Which one will come true?

the-sun-is-also-a-star

For whatever reason, I waited a really long time before reading Everything Everything, Nicola Yoon’s first novel. It was not a mistake I was about to make again with The Sun is Also a Star. I’m only writing about it now because of the unexpected hiatus – thanks for bearing with me, by the way – but I read this back at the beginning of December, pretty much in one sitting. My heart was hurting – because of the news, because of complicated personal stuff, because of the more typical twenties-related nonsense, and I was starting to feel like nothing I did really mattered. This book and its beautiful message communicated by Yoon’s gorgeous writing did a lot toward getting me feeling like myself again.

I don’t even know where to start with explaining how much I loved this one.

The Sun is Also a Star is a novel preoccupied with immigrant narratives in America. We get to see two sides – Natasha, undocumented and born in Jamaica, and Daniel, born in America to documented Korean parents. Their status obviously has a big impact on the economic situation of their families – Daniel’s parents own a business and have sent their eldest to Harvard (and Daniel is currently on the same track), whereas Natasha’s family struggle to get by and live in a one bedroom apartment.

Yoon uses Natasha and Daniel’s relationships with their families as a way of exploring the tensions that arise when trying to blend cultures. There is a particular focus on this in Daniel’s story. Yoon uses Daniel’s fraught relationship with his brother, Charlie as a lens through which to view the difficulty both boys have in allowing their identities – both Korean AND American – to coexist. While Daniel is comfortable with himself as Korean American, which means being happy to speak in both languages, include his American friends in Korean culture, etc, Charlie doesn’t want to be seen as anything but American. This is painfully shown in an incident from their childhood in which Daniel referred to Charlie as ‘Hyung’, a title a younger brother uses for the older, and Charlie gets angry after his friends tease him about it. That incident was the point at which Charlie all but cut Daniel out of his life, and now both in their late teens, they barely speak at all. Charlie pretends like he only understands English – even when speaking to their parents. He claims Korean food is disgusting. All his friends are white – a deliberate choice. Charlie is without a doubt the villain of the piece, but the reader’s hatred of him can’t help but be mitigated by how sad his story is. He is driven by self-hatred created by a society in which whiteness is considered the norm and the aspiration. Yeah. It SUCKS.

I adore the way that Yoon writes about family. She uses such a delicate approach for such a complicated thing, and it makes her characters painful, frustrating and ultimately so believable.

Have I mentioned yet that I love her? Because I totally love her.

My other favourite thing about this book, the thing that made me SO HAPPY I had to put it down for a little bit in order to just… you know, have a spontaneous dance party while I made a cup of coffee (like I said, reading this book was the first thing to make me feel like a human again in WEEKS)… was Yoon’s use of perspective. So, as the summary says, the majority of the novel is split between Daniel and Natasha. But in addition to that, Yoon frequently zooms out, allowing Charlie, Natasha’s dad and Daniel’s parents their own micro-story. But she doesn’t stop there. Those Daniel and Natasha’s lives touch – a security lady, a lawyer, a drunk driver, a waitress in a Korean restaurant and more, also get a moment under Yoon’s empathetic spotlight. This creates a real sense of Daniel and Natasha’s day as a microcosm – you get a sense of their story as one piece of the gigantic puzzle that is the city, and the world, even.

I’ve been watching John Green on vlogbrothers since I was 15, so the idea of imagining people complexly is hardly one that is new to me, but I don’t think I have read a book before that so eloquently presents the concept. It describes a world in which everyone – even that guy at work the other day who ordered a FLAT WHITE and then quizzed me on whether I knew what a FLAT WHITE was cause if I brought him a LATTE he was going to be angry about it – is mystifyingly, energetically and consistently complex.

Over the past few weeks, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what it means to be part of something bigger. When looking at the constantly awful news, and learning about the small privileges of everyday life most people don’t even think about that come at the expense of others, it is easy to feel like a pointless speck lost in the midst of a buzzing cloud of relentless bad. Reading The Sun is Also a Star helped me see this differently. Yoon presents the small moments – the beautiful ones and the sad ones – as individual pieces in the puzzle of the world.

The world she presented was a cautiously optimistic one, and I love her for writing it.

***A Word on Instalove

This review is WAY TOO LONG, as usual, but I couldn’t make myself post it without throwing in my two cents on this particular issue. I saw a lot of conversation on Twitter that described Daniel and Natasha’s relationship as instalove, but I completely disagree. To me, the definition of instalove is two characters with ZERO chemistry talking about how much they LOVE each other and fiercely making out without ever having had an actual conversation. What Natasha and Daniel have is an instant connection, serious flirty banter and the sort of chemistry that you can’t help but smile at while reading. Chemistry = goodPLEASEMOREthanks whereas instalove is just… lazy. You can FEEL the difference.

 

 

 

 

 

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon Spier is being blackmailed. The black mailer is Martin Addison and he wants a date with Simon’s friend Abby. That Abby would never be interested is the least of Simon’s problems.

Because Simon’s secret isn’t the only one at stake.

Simon’s gay. Through looking at his emails, Martin hasn’t only uncovered this fact, but also Simon’s online potential-boyfriend, Blue. Since Blue won’t even let Simon know his identity, he’s guessing he won’t react well to having his private life scattered around the school gossip mill, either.

It could be an epic fuckstorm of a disaster. 

simon

Once again, I find myself asking why did I wait so long? As pretty much everyone on the entire blogosphere has said, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli is awesomeness at its highest degree.

I fell in love with Simon straight away. He’s funny, insecure, self-involved and a total sceptic of all things relating to the high school experience. He’s confident and well-liked, but he feels like he’s always hiding.

Yeah. I fell hard for this guy.

tumblr_mf5ranoU4K1qgb87zo2_250

‘I take a sip of my beer, and it’s – I mean, it’s just astonishingly disgusting. I don’t think I was expecting it to taste like ice-cream, but holy fucking hell. People lie and get fake IDs and sneak into bars, and for this? Honestly I think I’d rather make out with Bieber. The dog. Or Justin.

Anyway, it really makes you worry about all the hype surrounding sex.’ 

There are so many passages in the book like this that just plastered a happy grin all over my face. There was a similar level of real-ness to all the characters in the book. He has Abbey, his confident cheerleader friend, and Nick, the cute gamer guy with the guitar. Even Martin, the supposed villain of the piece, is impossible to truly hate. His awkward and hilarious antics in no way make up for the shitty things he does, but I could summon up far more pity for him than I could genuine resentment. My favourite characters (other than Simon, obvs.) were his best friend Leah and his younger sister Nora. They are both in the painfully self-conscious phase I think most of us bookish types probably went through at some point.

The central theme of the novel is concerned with finding identity. While Simon knows himself and understands his sexuality, he struggles to share it with the people who love him. He feels trapped by the image of him that his family and friends hold, and is exhausted by the reactions he encounters whenever he deviates from their expectations.

‘… I’m tired of coming out. All I ever do is come out. I try not to change, but I keep changing, in all these tiny ways. I get a girlfriend. I have a beer. And every freaking time, I have to reintroduce myself to the universe all over again.’

What I also liked about Simon is that he is a total hypocrite in this regard. Even as he laments the way that his family box him in, he accuses his younger sister Nora of not acting ‘like herself’. Throughout the book Simon comes to realise that people can’t be boxed in. The boxes are imaginary.

‘… people really are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows. And maybe it’s a good thing, the way we never stop surprising each other.’

And I must say before I sign off, the Spiers are my favourite family since the Chathams of Saint Anything. Becky Albertalli has no time for disappearing parents. Simon’s parents are present and excited. The family watch Bachelorette together. Afterwards they Skype about it with Alice, Simon’s sister who’s away at university.

(my mum and I did a similar thing with Broadchurch).

The only word I can use to describe this book is authentic. There was such depth of heart to every character. Becky Albertalli has created a cast of characters you’ll want to read over and over while gently prodding us to re-evaluate the paradigms we experience life through.

‘It is definitely annoying that straight (and white, for that matter) is the default, and that the only people who have to think about their identity are the ones who don’t fit that mold. Straight people should have to come out, and the more awkward it is, the better. Awkwardness should be a requirement. I guess this is sort of our version of the Homosexual Agenda?’