Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (Spoiler-Free)

With only one more year of school to go, Frances is more focused than ever on what’s been the goal of the last few years of her life: Cambridge University. And she’s well on her way to achieving it, with an excellent work ethic, consistently high grades, and the position of head girl, but very few friends who truly know her. One evening, however, a boy she knows drunkenly lets slip that he’s the mysterious creator of her favourite podcast, and they discover a friendship like neither of them have ever known… but this new relationship is tested by Aled and his podcast’s sudden rise to internet fame, and Frances’ feeling of responsibility over the disappearance of his sister, Carys.

The backdrop to this story is the podcast Universe City (a Welcome to Night Vale-esque narrative about somebody who’s trapped on a campus that’s full of monsters, and trying to escape), and the community that builds up around it. Frances’ love for the podcast is evident almost from the very beginning of the book, and I feel like it provides a really nice insight into an aspect of fan culture that I haven’t seen explored in YA lit before… That said, this book is not about Universe City, it’s about Frances and Aled, and Universe City is, more than anything else, the medium through which we are able to best know Aled.

Speaking of the characters, both Frances and Aled were fantastically written, with very relatable struggles, and I loved the way that it was only in finding each other that they were able to truly find their own selves, and their own voices; each of them only needing somebody who had no specific expectations of them in order to come out of their shells – and those shells were pretty thick… Frances had put so much effort into making herself into “Cambridge material” that realising that the other parts of her might be just as important became incredibly difficult, while Aled was trapped under layers and layers of hurt that he didn’t know how to (or, it seems, believe that he deserved to) escape from. That’s not all there was to the characters, of course, but part of the joy of reading Radio Silence, for me, was getting to know them both for myself, so I won’t say anything more about them except this: They’re both wonderful characters individually, and are made even more so by their love for each other.

And I don’t mean romantic love, by the way; that was another great thing about this book. I don’t think I would’ve minded if Oseman had decided to go the romance-route, because I loved their relationship so much, but I can’t over-emphasise how wonderful it felt to be reading a book (particularly a book for teenagers) that gave such precedence to friendship, with no expectation of (or desire for) it ever becoming anything else. And I say “else”, rather than “more”, because I feel that Oseman does a really great job of showing that friendship can be just as important a driving force in a person’s life as romance. Platonic soulmates is a term that springs to mind when I think about these two, though I’m not sure if the term was used in the book itself, or if I’m just projecting… There is a very well-executed romantic sub-plot, between Aled and another character, but it’s so far from being the focus of the story that I almost forgot to mention it.

Apart from friendship, major themes in this book included communication and its failure, of which there were ample examples on Aled’s part (whether its his attempts to reach out through Universe City which go unheard, or the inability to talk to Daniel about his feelings that’s making their relationship fall apart), and the feeling of being trapped by the expectations of others, which is demonstrated by Frances and Aled both – though in Frances’ case, the expectations that trouble her are ones that she’s actively cultivated, while Aled’s constraints are blatantly unfair. Both these themes do a lot to further flesh out characters who are already well developed and incredibly sympathetic.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Carys yet, and that’s deliberate. A lot of work seems to have gone into building up her disappearance as a huge mystery, and its even implied (on the back of the book as well as in the narrative) that Frances may have somehow been involved in it – or at least knows some dark, crucial secret – but the eventual revelation is quite underwhelming, as is the solution to the (smaller) “February Friday” puzzle that’s presented in Universe City. I wouldn’t say that this is a problem with the book, exactly, as the resolution of Carys’ storyline ties in quite nicely with the rest of the book’s themes, but I do think that putting so much emphasis on it was something of a marketing misstep… There are little mysteries here and there that are interesting to see unfold, but the huge, We Were Liars-style twist that I was half expecting doesn’t exist.

I did have one problem with the book, however, and that was the extreme overuse of the word “literally”, both in Frances’ narration and the dialogue. I haven’t read Oseman’s previous book, so I’m not sure if this is just her writing style, or if it’s an attempt to accurately portray modern language (I’m aware that “literally” is a word that is often overused in real life, too), but if the former, it really should have been picked up by an editor, and if the latter, I can’t imagine why she’d choose to replicate a speech pattern that’s so irritating… Obviously, it wasn’t enough to stop me from loving this book, but extreme pedants might want to be aware of it before reading.

I only originally gave Radio Silence four stars, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and then it ended up being one of my top books of 2017! It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, and one of the most relatable books I’ve ever come across, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone who’s even vaguely intrigued by anything I’ve said about it… I feel like I was barely able to scratch the surface with this review, even though it’s already gone on for far too long, so here are some random, leftover thoughts that I couldn’t find a place for in the main review:

  • The cast is incredibly diverse, in terms of both race and sexuality. This is also one of only two books I’ve ever read that discusses asexuality, and it does it extremely well.
  • I loved Aled so much. Frances was great, too, but Aled needs all the hugs in the world.
  • The intensity of their friendship makes me miss my own best friend even more than I already did. (She lives a long way away.)
  • I wish that every YA parent was as amazing and supportive as Frances’ mum.
  • Universe City should be a real thing, even if it’s in book form rather than a podcast. It sounds really interesting. (We got Carry On, so it’s possible, right?)
  • I may add this to my favourites list…

2017 in Review

Last year (and it’ll be strange for a while yet to be using that phrase to refer to 2017) ended up being a pretty great reading year for me, despite several not-quite-slumps, and a few very time-consuming video game obsessions. 😅 I’m still not reading at the pace that I was when I was in China (just before I decided to start this blog), but considering that I now have a considerably more active social life, and a job with far less downtime, I’m happy with both the quantity and the quality of the books that I read. I managed to complete my Goodreads Challenge, as well as all of my Reading Resolutions, which makes a huge change from 2016, where I only managed two out of ten. 😰 The My Year in Books page on Goodreads also looks as cool as ever, but I especially like that they’ve added reviews into the layout this time.

Of course, I’ve picked out a few favourites, which I’d like to say a little about (in order of reading, not preference), starting with The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke, which was not at all what I was expecting it to be, but completely blew me away. It’s a story about a woman and the robot who helped to raise her, and all the ways that their relationship shifts and changes as they grow older. I only initially gave this four stars, but I took the fact that I’m still thinking about it, and remember it so favourably as a sign that I ought to bump it up to a five-star rating.

The next book was definitely the best book I read in 2017: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie! This book not only defied my expectations, but completely blew them out of the water. It tells the story of a soldier called Breq who used to be part of the consciousness of a sentient starship, and is now on a mission to avenge the destruction of herself (kind of). It’s very strange conceptually, but I found the characters, the plot, and the intergalactic society that Leckie created completely enchanting, and I can’t wait to finish the series (after which I will be deciding whether this book specifically, or the series as a whole, will make it onto my all-time favourites list)!

And third is Radio Silence by Alice Oseman, which I finished reading on Boxing Day evening, so it’s a very recent addition to the list. It’s a British contemporary novel about a girl who’s always been super-focused on her academic performance, but secretly loves a strange podcast called Universe City, whose creator is a complete mystery – until one day an acquaintance of hers drunkenly reveals himself to be the mysterious “Radio Silence”. Plot-wise, this book was probably quite weak, but I loved it for its characters, who I identified with very strongly, as well as its homage to fan-culture (of the podcasts and fan-art variety), which read very much like a love letter. 💕

Lastly, here’s a round-up of my resolutions, which (as I previously mentioned) went  really well:

1) Take part in the Library Scavenger Hunt every month:

2) Read 1 non-fiction book:

  • Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks [review linked above]

3) Read 10 adult/literary novels:

4) Read 3 classics or modern classics:

  • Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen [review linked above]
  • Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne [review linked above]
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen [review linked above]

5) Read 5 books that showcase cultures different to my own:

6) Read 5 comics, manga or graphic novels (each series can only count once):

7) Read 10 short stories (not including spin-off novellas):

  • Nora’s Song by Cecelia Holland (from the Dangerous Women anthology)
  • Odd & the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
  • The Hands That Are Not There by Melinda Snodgrass (DW)
  • Raisa Stepanova by Carrie Vaughan (DW)
  • Wrestling Jesus by Joe R. Lansdale (DW)
  • Neighbors by Megan Lindholm (DW)
  • I Know How to Pick ‘Em by Lawrence Block (DW)
  • Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson (DW)
  • A Queen in Exile by Sharon Kay Penman (DW)
  • Midnights by Rainbow Rowell (from the My True Love Gave to Me anthology)

8) Read 5 books that were given or lent to me:

  • Odd & the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
  • The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman [review]
  • Wild Lily by K.M. Peyton [review]
  • The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke [review linked above]
  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [review linked above]

9) Finish reading 3 DNF books:

  • Now I Rise by Kiersten White
  • Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld [review linked above]
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen [review linked above]

10) Finish or catch up on 5 series that I started before the beginning of the year:

December Wrap-Up

Happy New Year, everyone! The last month of 2017 was, for me, full of shopping and baking, an awful lot of eating, and – of course – lots and lots of books. Most of what I read was actually short stories, as I was trying to tick off the last of my reading challenges for the year, but still, I did a lot more reading in the last month than I have in a while. 😊 In total, I managed to read three novels, and eight short stories (and, yes, I did manage to complete that challenge 🎊).

Catching Jordan by Miranda Kenneally. The first book in the Hundred Oaks series, a collection of contemporary books that share a setting, but have largely disconnected stories and lead characters… I had high hopes for this series as another set of cute contemporaries – this time with a sports focus, which I seem to be susceptible to 😅 – but I probably would have been better off just re-reading Now & Then (by Emma Mills), which is just a better book all around. It was quite cute, but the characters were all pretty bland, and the story and romance were both completely predictable. I doubt I’ll be reading any more from this series.Bombshells by Jim Butcher.Dresden Files novella that I found in the Dangerous Women anthology, which follows Harry Dresden’s apprentice Molly on what she thinks is a mission to rescue a vampire who’s being held hostage – but she quickly realises that she’s only been told a small fraction of the true story. I found the plot of this quite interesting, but, as someone who’s only read the tiniest bit of The Dresden Files (volume 1 of one of the graphic novel adaptations) and barely remembers it, most of the finer details were lost on me… I definitely think that this is a story that is aimed at people who already know the series, though it does still make an enjoyable standalone.Raisa Stepanova by Carrie Vaughn. A short story from the Dangerous Women anthology about a Soviet fighter pilot during the second world war, who’s aiming for the five kills she needs in order to be recognised as an ace fighter, but is held back by worry for her brother, who’s recently been declared missing in action. As is the case with many short stories, I enjoyed this, but found that there wasn’t really enough of it for me to find something to get really invested in. Raisa was an interesting character, and seeing the air force from the perspective of a female pilot was also interesting… Given everything that she was going through, however, I was surprised that the narrative was so fast-paced and action-oriented…Wrestling Jesus by Joe R. Lansdale. Another short story from Dangerous Women, though in this case the titular dangerous woman didn’t have much of an active role in the story; the main character is a teenager called Marvin who’s having problems with bullies, and ends up being taken under the wing of a surprisingly tough old man, who turns out to be a former wrestler. These days, he only fights once every five years though, against a rival who’s in love with the same woman… Despite my dislike for wrestling, I really liked this story; it’s definitely one of my favourites so far from this anthology. Marvin was a great, relatable lead, and the old man (usually called by his stage name X-Man) offered both wisdom and comedy… I was more interested in Marvin’s situation with the bullies than with X-Man & Jesus’ rivalry, but both parts were very entertaining. 👍 (Also, major Karate Kid vibes, especially in the first half.)Neighbors by Megan Lindholm. A short story (also from Dangerous Women) about an old woman called Sarah whose neighbour disappears one foggy night. Sarah witnesses Linda’s departure, but when she later sees strangers in the streets wearing Linda’s distinctive backpack, nobody believes her. Meanwhile, believing her to be unable to care for herself any longer, Sarah’s two children try to persuade her to sell her house and move into an assisted living home… A powerful and moving (and also quite sad) take on growing old, with a touch of magical realism, and an incredibly unreliable narrator. Lindholm’s writing was beautiful, and made me feel really connected to Sarah, which is an impressive feat in a story that’s less than fifty pages long. Definitely a hit!

I Know How to Pick ‘Em by Lawrence Block. A man and a woman meet in a bar, and the woman takes the man home with her, hoping that she can entice him to help her sort out a little problem, but unfortunately he’s already guessed at her plan, and has one of his own. This short story (from Dangerous Women) was an interesting look into the minds of two terrible people (neither named); one incredibly selfish, and the second – from whose perspective the story is told – deeply disturbed. And Block’s narrative cleverly makes it so that it takes a while to realise exactly how awful each of the characters (but particularly the second one) truly is… I don’t know if I’d say that I enjoyed this, but it definitely got me thinking.Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson. A short story from Dangerous Women which is set in the world of Cosmere, and tells the tale of an innkeeper and her daughter, who live in the middle of a dangerous forest filled with spirits, and secretly hunt down criminals who cross their path. Sanderson’s worldbuilding is always top-notch, and this story was no exception to that rule; he was really able to bring the forest and all its dangers to life. The plot was really intriguing, too, and I really liked both the main characters, Silence and William Ann… I believe there are more Cosmere books, but I definitely feel that this story can stand alone.Royal Wedding by Meg Cabot. The final book in the Princess Diaries series, set several years after the conclusion of the main series, and documenting Mia’s adult life, where her main thoughts have shifted from Michael, her domineering grandmother, Michael, and the difficulty of being a teenage princess, to Michael, her still domineering grandmother, Michael, and the difficulty of being a no-longer-teenage princess… So, Mia is still the same person she’s always been, and I kind of love her for it. And also find her hilarious. 😂 This book was very much a blast from the past, and I enjoyed it immensely; I hadn’t realised quite how much I’d missed Mia and all her crazy worries. This was my Library Scavenger Hunt pick for the month, so you can find a full review of it here.A Queen in Exile by Sharon Kay Penman. A historical short story (from Dangerous Women) about Queen Constance of Sicily, with a focus on her husband’s invasion of her homeland, and the birth of her son (Frederick II, who would go on to become the Holy Roman Emperor). This was an interesting story, but I’m not sure how much I actually liked Constance’s voice, and Penman’s writing style was rather matter-of-fact… I am, however, somewhat curious to read some of her other books, so clearly it wasn’t actually all that off-putting. 😉

Midnights by Rainbow Rowell. Snapshots of a pair of friends during the countdown to every New Year they’ve experienced together. This was a really cute little story (from the anthology My True Love Gave to Me, for a change! 😋); not as good as Kindred Spirits, Rowell’s other short story, but that one sets the bar pretty high. The characters were well fleshed-out, however, and the snapshots of them year after year showed the progression of their relationship brilliantly.Radio Silence by Alice Oseman. My final book of the year follows a sixth-former called Frances, who is focused on doing well at school to the exclusion of almost everything else – until one evening a boy she knows accidentally reveals himself to her as the creator of her favourite podcast, Universe City, which tells the tale of a person stuck in a strange, monster-ridden university campus. I heard briefly about this book a while ago, but wasn’t really all that interested in reading it until I found it on a list of books with confirmed asexual characters, something that there isn’t nearly enough of in the literary world as a whole, let alone YA… But I’m really glad that I decided to pick this up, as it connected with me on so many levels, even disregarding the asexuality issues that it brings up (briefly; that’s not the focus of the book by a long shot). I’ll be posting a review soon (once I’ve got all my New Year posts out of the way), so keep an eye out for that, but in short: An amazing book, and definitely one of my favourites of 2017.