Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Welcome to Night Vale meets teenage reality.

Publication Date: 25th February 2016
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s

Radio Silence is one of the best books I’ve read this year, simply by virtue of how liberating it is. Every fear I think I ever had as an eighteen-year-old is voiced beautifully, and softly, honestly, laid to rest. The characters are complete, the perfect balance of simple concerns and life-changing ones. The surprising and improbable is blended with the real to recreate a brilliant portrait of the final two years of school.

The writing is fluent and comfortable, treating the reader as an equal with no need of overexplanation and simplification. The narration is conversational, with interspersed ‘transcripts’ from the Universe City podcast, a central feature of the novel, from which the character of Radio Silence comes. As a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, I could definitely see how Oseman had been inspired by it, as she notes in the acknowledgements. Dark and queer – in all the senses – Universe City acts as a ‘gothic double’ to the characters’ lives, the playground for unvoiced fears.

Oseman deals with a lot of heavy issues which are preoccupying young adults more and more: sexuality, gender, race and the influence of privilege. However, she achieves what many other writers have conspicuously failed to. None of these issues are shoehorned in to prove a point about teenagers, or to fashionably throw a minority into the mix. Oseman recreates the confused experience of actually determining identity, and by writing it so fluently she does these causes the best service. Her characters are not defined by these characteristics alone, they are fully rounded people for whom the above are just part – if significant – of their persons.

Radio Silence is an incredible novel and I recommend it is forced upon every young person you know, especially if they’re a bit nerdy and a bit scared of their future. It’s the kind of book I wish I’d read, and that I read now well into the early hours, just constantly agreeing with the story. Trying to explain what this book is “about” I cannot do it justice. It’s about podcasting, studying, being yourself, coping with abuse, dealing with friendship, fear of affection and fear of rejection. Just read it, and you’ll understand what I mean.

Review: Why I Went Back by James Clammer

A beautiful, often staggering, portrayal of a breaking home.

Publication Date: 7th April 2016
Publisher: Andersen Press

Why I Went Back is a fantastic debut, describing fourteen-year-old Aidan’s discovery of an ancient prisoner, as he struggles with his mother’s mental illness and his dad’s depression. In between trying to deliver the mail his postman father has neglected, and attempting to at least show his face at school, Aidan decides to help this stranger. Along the way, he is also able to open up to classmate, Daniel, whom Aidan had previously bullied. Clammer effortlessly shows how nothing is black and white, how tragedy does not have to mean despair, and how problems can always be overcome.

If I could only use one word to describe Clammer’s writing, it would be ‘strong’. The flow is eloquent and the feel of it is rich. Written from Aidan’s perspective, it demonstrates the mental processes of a fourteen-year-old boy as he deals with the collapse of his family life. With uncommon perspicacity, Aidan comprehends his impulses and feelings at the same time as the reader, painting a heartbreaking but powerful picture of a child having to prioritise between rocks and hard places constantly in order to carry on.

Despite containing actual instances of magic, the overwhelming sense is one of magical realism. It’s as if the magical part of the story is a side plot, a fancy, compared to the harsh reality of mental illness, bullying, young carers and neglect. The magic is ineffective against the cruelty of the world, but it is able to inspire Aidan; it can give him the push he needs to be able to deal with what life throws at him. If you are not a fan of fantastical fiction, I would suggest giving this novel a try anyway.

I cannot recommend Why I Went Back enough. I read it in one sitting and could have carried on. It strikes just the right balance, and is a pleasure to read. Anyone who is interested in the power of the human will, and an “invincible heart,” will find this novel really speaks to them. It can also be given to sensitive children of younger ages, well within the middle grade group – not just YA – and will offer them huge insight into the different lives people live behind closed doors. I look forward to Clammer’s next book.


Review: Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Redefining the fine line between childhood and adulthood.

Publication date: 31st December 2015
Publisher: Andersen Press

I’d heard a lot about Orbiting Jupiter before I read it. A Bookseller ‘book to look out for in January’, and concerned with such an unusual and moving topic, I decided to stray into the realm of YA – despite being a picture book gal myself. I was most certainly rewarded for it.

Orbiting Jupiter is the kind of novel you can read on the tiny screen of your mobile phone, and still be moved to tears on a train surrounded by strangers. Tenderly written, and without overuse of cliche, Schmidt vividly recreates the intensity of young love and demonstrates the agelessness of grief.

Joseph, having been released from prison for attempted murder, and a young father at 14, is accepted into a foster family to avoid his own abusive father. Jackson, his foster brother, takes to him and supports him while the ‘other kids’ at school – and even some of the teachers – seek to avoid the strange and apparently dangerous teen. Joseph is able to open up about – yet never quite escape – his troubled past. This is a novel about loyalty and acceptance; about never giving up.

The reader is constantly in an emotional conflict over wanting to dismiss Joseph’s desires as childish, and the reality of not being able to understand the 14-year-old’s own turmoil, so beyond the common reader’s experience. The characters are relatable and well-constructed, though perhaps the lack of fear from the foster family, the Hurds, is unrealistic in the face of a convicted criminal. For me, there were moments when the optimism afforded by the unconditional kindness shown by the Hurds, and the utter despair when contemplating Joseph’s troubled life, jarred uncomfortably. However, overall the novel has a resounding impact, and one which has stayed with me, so perhaps this contrast is exactly the kind of magical realism the novel needs in order to come together.

As is, perhaps, to be expected, the question of abortion is never brought up. In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into detail, but the complications – which are hardly surprising with such a young pregnancy – are presented as inevitable and the parents of the girl are quick to condemn the boy, rather than take a look at the choices they themselves made. Considering the topic will generally appeal to young readers who are old enough to be aware of the procedure, it was certainly confusing that it was never mentioned once, regardless of any moral stance on the part of the author or characters.

I would recommend it to any adult who has ever considered the gulf between children and adults to be insurmountable, or who has lamented the fact that some think it is. For young adults, I would recommend it to those wishing to challenge their preconceptions and glimpse a past of the differences and universalities of human experience.