Looking for Alaska by John Green

by Sarah-Jane Bird

How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?

John Green’s books have a fandom so intense I was almost reluctant to read his award winning debut novel Looking for Alaska. Social media idolises Green and his characters, and he is the second most followed author on Goodreads, second only to Cassandra Clare. I’m quite a tough sell on YA fiction, but I knew I wouldn’t stop wondering about this book until I sat down and read it. So I did.

Miles Halter joins Culver Creek boarding school, hoping to seek ‘A Great Perhaps’. A self confessed bookish nerd with an obsession with famous ‘last words’, Miles is and dare I say it – your typical so uncool he is kind of cool teenage boy. His roommate Chip introduces Miles to Alaska. Enigmatic, intense Alaska Young.

On the surface, Looking for Alaska is a story of the nerd who meets his ‘Manic Pixie Dreamgirl’ and falls desperately in love. Green has taken an overused trope and twisted it just enough that we get real depth with his characters. Alaska is deeply troubled, and even though she admits how unhappy she is Miles only sees the side of her that he wants to see. Miles idolises quirky and vibrant Alaska, and struggles to accept her as a whole, troubled person.

Looking for Alaska is a funny, touching and very realistic portrayal of a group of teenage outsiders. Beneath the adolescent veneer of alcohol, cigarettes and sex is a story about growing up, in one of the harshest ways possible.  I loved reading this book, Green writes beautifully.

4/5

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THE GIFT OF RAIN by TAN TWAN ENG

by Margo Fuke

 

Sixteen year old Philip has an English father and a (deceased) Chinese mother and feels isolated from both cultures. (our ethnic minorities?). He meets Hayato Endo, a Japanese Martial Arts Master. Philip carries the immense trust essential to their master/student relationship over into the rest of his life, finding stability in intensive daily training and sharing his love and knowledge of the island with Endo San.

 

But this is Penang, 1939, trembling and waiting as the Japanese invade China with appalling brutality (I’ll leave you to read about the Rape of Nanking). The Allies can spare only two ancient ships for defence of Malaya and Singapore and, worse still, all the guns on Singapore are pointing the wrong way! The invaders make monkeys of the British by invading via Malaya, not with tanks, but on the humble bicyles that enable them to surge down paths invisible to non-locals. Philip recognises the info he has given Endo San. He is torn. Many welcomed the Japanese initially, seeing only freedom from Imperial rule. Then his newly-enlisted naval half-brother drowns.

 

I couldn’t help comparing this with the dilemma experienced by many in other parts of the world today. Should he flee; fight, like his half-siblings; copy his trader father’s ‘business as usual for now’ attitude; or collaborate in the hope of saving lives. He chooses the last but the insane viciousness of the invaders gradually makes this impossible and he must throw caution to the winds and hope the Allies return.

 

Philip tells his story after a lifetime running his father’s trading empire and we see the hatred of those who called him collaborator and the gratitude of those he saved.

 

I was reluctant to read this book. I spent several months, years ago, in Singapore and Indonesia and they hadn’t forgotten Japanese brutality and still feared a new invasion as inevitable. But it was a Book Group choice. As a Tai Chi beginner I was fascinated initially by his martial arts training and, by the time the story moved on, I was completely hooked by this lonely boy. This is a gripping story of colonial family life, friendship, betrayal, and simply coping with the horrors of seeing his world devastated around him. It is brilliantly coloured, action-packed, evocative and moving.

 

Book review: “Sword Quest” By Nancy Yi Fan

by Chris Kennett

Sword Quest

“This is a special sword. A sword that can change the world”.

“Wind-voice the half-dove has been freed from slavery at last. Can he and his brave companions save their forest from one-winged tyrant, Maldeor, who hungers for supreme power?

The gripping prequel to “Swordbird”, from fourteen-year-old Nancy Yi Fan”.

 

I picked this one up because of the idea of animals (in this case, birds) using objects like swords, staffs and harps, much like the “Redwall” series, which I enjoy. Plus the fact that the blurb mentions the writer being only fourteen at the time this was written (2008), made me decide to given Nancy the benefit of doubt and see what she’s made off.

The writing structure of the story is in third-person distant, so the reader has a wider view of what is going on in several places and the whole plot comes together. Also the way that Nancy describes the relationships between the different species of birds scores points, as it give the readers a picture of how the various races view and the way they treat each other.

However, the descriptions in the writing is a bit simple and the pacing of events is somewhat rushed. Also the concept of the whole “good vs evil” is not very original in this book. A hero is prophesied to save the world from evil on a certain date seems very cliché these days. This may be due to Nancy’s young age and possibly her lack of experience of the world. But despite this it was a decent attempt at writing a story and giving a few years, she may write something with a lot more depth.

To sum it up, while this isn’t the best story I’ve read, it’s not the worst considering Nancy’s age at the time of writing this.

An average read.

 

The Five Minute Writer

by Sarah-Jane Bird

 

“I’ll teach you how to write. I will. You’ll use me all the time. I have all the tricks hidden up my sleeve, and when you think about it I’m an investment.”

You pay for your shiny new book, and leave the shop with it tucked under your arm. With a clever title and a promise to make you a better writer, you feel inspired already. So you buy it, and there it will sit proudly on your bookshelf, or perhaps on your desk. And there it will sit. And sit. And – well you get the idea.

The hard fact is, none of these books will make you a better writer and they certainly won’t force you to write the novel you have always wanted to write. They can’t force a pantser to become a planner, and they won’t have you write your best seller in thirty days.

That being said, there are some books out there that can provide you with a little motivational kick when you need it. One of my favourites is The Five Minute Writer. If I was ever going to judge a book by its cover or indeed its title this would be it. But the reviews were pretty positive, so I impulse purchased and this book found it’s place on my desk. And then this strange thing happened, I used it. And I used it again, and again. And then I realised what a wonderful little book it really was.

The Five Minute Writer is full of short five minute (funnily enough) exercises that are there when you need a little inspiration, motivation or a simple kick up the backside! The book contains fifty eight exercises, short enough to tackle when you are pushed for time. The exercises themselves vary from character development, to dialogue, points of view, clichés and many more besides.

On a personal level, I found the book to be most helpful when I took on the exercises in the mind of my characters. Exercise 26 is all about two faced characters, and how people may be perceived from one person to the next, which is much more beneficial when you take on the task with your characters in mind.

I found this book to be one of my favourites, and one I will always go back to especially when I am in need of character development. By seeing the task through my characters eyes, they became layered in ways I hadn’t considered before. And the book is ideal for those who have busy schedules. Priced at £6.99 from Amazon, this book is a hidden gem with a lot of potential.

4/5

 

Book Review: Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

by Sofia Andrewski

www.theinkyfeather.com

 

Dellarobia lives in poverty on a farm in the Appalachians in Tennessee, and is forced into an early marriage by an unplanned pregnancy. On the way to meet with her extra-marital lover she stumbles across a mind-blowing sight: the forest near her family’s land is blazing like a fire, but instead of flames it is thousands of Monarch butterflies that light the branches.

Despite the beauty before her, Dellarobia soon realises she is not witnessing a miracle, but a sign of a disintegrating climate. But fighting the short-sighted schemes of her fellow countrymen is more than a challenge where money is involved—and the community is forced to choose between alleviating their poverty or the survival of a species.

Kingsolver graduated with a science degree in biology and ecology, and these themes permeate Flight Behaviour. The extreme rural setting helps to encapsulate the story and the message into a coherent whole, like a snow-globe separates a scene from the outside world. This is somewhat ironic considering that the core message is not an isolated issue, but one that applies to the whole planet as a biological system in its own right.

The text skilfully records the micro-moments of Dellarobia’s claustrophobic life whilst constantly underlining the reality of an impending environmental catastrophe. In addition, the author utilises a range of characters, often from very different positions in the social hierarchy, to illustrate the problems of social justice and responsibility that face humanity.

For example, Dellarobia’s husband Cub is an uneducated but good-natured bumpkin, and simply doesn’t grasp the enormity of the unusual weather, whereas the affluent scientist Ovid—who comes to investigate the sudden butterfly migration—fully understands the implications but does not grasp the social idiosyncrasies of the farming communities.

The healthy mix of opinion given by different characters helps Kingsolver to avoid preachiness and she portrays the interplay between the religious and scientific elements of the book with both accuracy and fairness. The reader finishes the story with an unnerving sense of its reality; we only need look out the window to see evidence of the same bizarre weather that Dellarobia faces in the novel. There is a sense of recognition, partly because Flight Behaviour was published in 2012, and partly because Kingsolver chooses to focus on modern themes: climate change is interwoven with social disparity and how the media screens the information we receive.

Even though the story focuses on this at its centre, the plot is personal as the reader follows Dellarobia’s often mundane but identifiable life, and the style of writing does not lack good doses of humour. It is an enjoyable, meaningful read, and hard to forget.

Airborn By Kenneth Oppel

by Christopher Kennett

Airborn

“Matt Cruse is cabin boy aboard the Aurora, the luxury airship he has called home for the past three years. He has high hopes for promotion to junior sailmaker – until Kate de Vries arrives, fired with her own mysterious quest. She may be rich, but she’s spirited and brave and won’t let social distinctions prevent their friendship.

Then one night, over the middle of the ocean, deadly air pirates board the Aurora. Far from any hope of rescue, Kate and Matt are flung into adventures beyond all imagining….”

 

The blurb on this book was what caught my interest and I’m glad I took it out of the library and then later brought my own copy, as it was a very good read. The time setting for this story is roughly Victorian age, properly before airplanes became common use.

The style of writing is told in first-person from Matt Cruse’s perspective. Kenneth Oppel really did a great job in diving deep into Matt’s character, which portrays him as a young honest, reliable, resourceful and hard working cabin boy. At the same time he is also trying to bottle up his inner fears that surface when he isn’t airborn, as he was born as a baby on an airship halfway across the ocean and he feels his life belongs in the air, hence the title of the book.

Matt has a very deep attachment to the ship, which he considers is his home, so if something bad happens to the Aurora, he feels very insecure and worries that he may never be happy again as the ship makes him feel connected to his deceased father. The way Kenneth writes Matt’s view of things truly makes the reader get a very good look into Matt’s personality, how he handles things and in some cases makes me at least sympathize with him.

I also took a great liking to Kate. It should be noted that this story takes place during an age where men do all the work while women don’t and have no right to vote and stay home doing lady things. Kind of like before women started to get equal rights to men during world war two in real life. While most women in “Airborn” accept this way of life, Kate doesn’t. On the contrary, she stands against this society’s way of thinking and is willing to do anything to make sure she gets to stand on equal ground as men.

The actions she takes during the story as well as some of her quotes make for some interesting moments, not to mention putting Matt into some awkward situations. But this is what makes Kate a fascinating character. Mostly female characters in fiction that play a minor role and let the males do all the work just blow over me. But when there’s a strong willed lady like Kate who does not like sitting on the sidelines, but want to get into the thick of the action despite male views comes along, I tend to take a shine to them.

Onto the writing structure, it is very well done. The pacing of the events is smooth and allows the reader to follow the story without suddenly jumping from one event to the next and not give an explanation as to how the characters got there. The story is well built, starting slow, then moving nicely to action, then back to calm actions again before building up to the climax.

The epilogue is also excellently done. It is written so that the reader can choose if they want to go onto the next book or go on to different story altogether. It ties up the story nicely and brings it to a close, yet at same time there are very tiny hints that a second book could follow the first. When an epilogue does this, it is a great bonus in my view.

Another score for this book is Kenneth’s descriptive writing of his fictional creature for the story. During the story, Kate is trying to find an undiscovered species. It’s one thing to describe how a fictional creature appears in any story, it’s quite another to detail the biological side of the said animal, and through Kate, Kenneth does this very well. From the animal’s skeleton, to its habitat, to things like Kate observing the animal is an omnivore (an animal that eats both plants and meat), clearly shows that Kenneth has done his research of animal zoology before writing this book.

Overall, this book is a great read, both for young children and adults alike. It has a well-built story. An interesting cast of characters. Apart from Matt and Kate, I also give honourable mentions to the Caption of the Aurora, Captain Walken and the chief cook, Chef Vlad. The descriptions of the characters, places, and creatures are expertly done. And it has a good epilogue that ties it all up soundly. I would recommend this book as well as its audio CD version to anyone.

 

10 out of 10!

 

Gingerbread Man by Maggie Shayne

by Carol Thomas

This was the best book I have read in a long while. I probably only finish 90% of the books I start as I get bored easily, but this one kept me hooked from the first page.

It is a tough subject to cover as it is about child abduction and murder but I thought it was well handled.

It starts with Detective Vince O’Malley looking for two missing children. When they are found murdered there is a clue at the scene that links it to the abduction of a child, Ivy, years before, who was snatched from her sister Holly’s grip on the way home from school. Vince goes to see Holly, who is still traumatised by the memories. She suffers from panic attacks and obsessive compulsive disorder as well as survivor’s guilt. Once she realises that the man serving time for Ivy’s murder is innocent and the real killer is watching her and her Mother she helps Vince to find him.

There are several twists in the story. One is obvious and I guessed early on but the other surprised me.

This book was a really cheap buy which is surprising for something so well written. I will definitely be reading more by this author.