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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Writing – the (not so) lovely endeavour

by Anna Jones Buttimore

The lot of a writer is one of long hours hunched over a keyboard in a dimly lit room with nothing but a cat for company. Shut away from the real world we pull faces and make hand gestures as our characters do, mutter dialogue to ourselves, and live in a strange environment peopled entirely by creatures of our own imagination. Alone we face the frustrations of edit after edit, and the crushing disappointment of rejection after rejection of our precious offspring. It’s little wonder that many of us seem to be a little eccentric, if not downright mad.

As least, that’s how it used to be. These days writing is no longer the lonely and solitary profession.

  • Today Hellen is coming to my house to work on her novel. She’s coming partly because I have a spare desk and she won’t be tempted to do housework in my house (although I’ve told her she’d be welcome to), but also for the company. And once in a while she can ask me, “What’s that word that means..?” or “How would you describe the smell of..?” Hellen and I have written a book together, and writing in the company of others is a lot of fun.
  • Years ago when my first novel was printed my editor put me in touch with a fellow author I admired, Kerry Blair, and she in turn “virtually” introduced me to several other authors, most of whom I have now met in person. For many years we emailed each other frequently with messages of support and encouragement. We congratulated each other on books accepted and published and commiserated on rejections. We cooed over baby photos and offered support in times of illness and despair. Most of all, though, we shared the experience of writing, its rewards and its difficulties, and we were there for each other. We email less frequently than we once did, but we do now share a blog.
  • Hardly a day goes by without me receiving an invitation via Facebook to a book launch party; probably because around half my Facebook friends are writers. I also belong to many writers groups on Facebook where I find discussions on editing, naming characters and every and any aspect of this strange craft of ours.
  • I belong to two writers’ groups (Writebulb and Rayleigh WINOS) and thus two Saturdays a month are spent writing flash fiction, undertaking challenges and setting goals with other writers. It’s a really wonderful opportunity. One Writebulb member pointed out “We learn far more in two hours than we could at any creative writing class”.
  • Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month – November) sees groups of writers meeting together in libraries for “sprints” on their laptops, badges popping up all over Facebook, and a real sense of solidarity as thousands of writers struggle to write 50,000 words in just one month. I’ve only done it once, and I failed due to poor planning (got 20,000 words in and realised I had no idea where the book was going and needed to do some major research) but I’m going to try again in this year.

Writing may once have meant working in glorious solitude, but it doesn’t have to any more. We authors can support and encourage one another, get together and share our experiences and goals, either online or in person. Even if, at the end of the day, we like to retreat to our dimly-lit attic room with our laptops to immerse ourselves once more in the worlds we create.

 

Reading Memories

by Natacha Dudley

‘There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.’ Walt Disney.

I have always enjoyed books and I was fortunate to grow up with parents who loved reading and passed on that joy to me. Every week they would take me to the local library to choose new books. I can still remember the excitement of walking through the great entrance doors and then sprinting to the children’s section.

I briefly returned to that world when I heard about a recent survey of the most popular children’s books. The YouGov poll was carried out in association with the children’s charity Barnardo’s as part of a campaign to promote reading for vulnerable children in the UK. In the poll of more than 2,000 adults I was delighted to see Winnie the Pooh in first place, but the Top Ten also included other personal favourites such as Black Beauty, Treasure Island, and the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

As adults, reading gives us time to pause in our stressful lives and enjoy a moment of privacy and relaxation. When we read a story, we experience all of our favourite character’s emotions, and we escape into their world. Reading with young children not only stimulates their imagination but also gives them access to a wide vocabulary.  Literacy isn’t just a life skill it’s a passport to happiness. I wish the Barnardo’s Story Time initiative every success for the future.

 

 

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!

 

The Birthplace of Inspiration

by Sofia Andrewski

It is a common experience for a writer—or even an enthusiastic reader—to stare with awe at the words and ideas imparted on paper by the great authors and storytellers. Sometimes it is hard to understand where their inspiration came from, whether it be the imaginative worlds of Tolkien or J.K. Rowling, or the complicated network of passageways in Mervyn Peake’s castle Gormenghast. There are a million and one other examples of course, a lot of them quite ordinary. For instance, little accents of character, or an intricate plot-line. Sometimes these little touches strike the reader as a brand of genius.

If you are dabbling with writing, these strokes of brilliance in other’s works can be quite depressing. Thoughts such as, I could never do this, or, my imagination isn’t good enough, may be overwhelming. Sometimes it seems better to close our books and ignore the existence of every decent writer while we are attempting to put pen to paper.

However, this could be a mistake. Whilst no one wants to plagiarise, humans learn best by imitation. Looking at how something is done is a surer way of picking it up than turning our backs and trying to figure out how to do it ourselves. When it comes to generating fresh ideas, or recharging inspiration levels, it is helpful to re-read authors we admire, and work out why their stories are so immersive.

There is another benefit of scouring for new concepts. Not only does the mere act loosen the mind enough to see things from a new perspective—which can actually alter our style of prose—but it puts the subconscious to work, encouraging it to come up with new connections. Countless writers confess to forming the first structures of their story from ideas they had during sleep.

This is something I have experienced many times, and even just a few nights ago is another example: in the dream I was quite impressed by the inventiveness of one of the dream characters, as he found a variety of uses for a magnetic shield. I remember thinking in the dream, wow, I never would have thought of using it like that, completely unaware that it was indeed my brain that had come up with all the ideas—let alone the fact it was constructing the whole environment I was so engaged in. I woke up convinced that if my brain does that every night, creating such an absorbing environment, then surely it is capable of creating enough concepts for a decent story!

There is a certain beauty in the way the mind works, and how the imagination can flex its muscles, mixing bits of information together and coming out with something new and personal. Sometimes it is easy to forget we all have this ability, even the novice writer. It doesn’t really matter if you can’t afford to travel the world, or can’t break out of a chain of mundane situations; as long as we have access to a library, a world full of stories and inspiration awaits.

 

 

The Problems of A Pantser

by Hellen Riebold

As we all know there are two types of writers, the careful, methodical ‘planner’ who knows who all their characters are, what’s going to happen to them and how the book is going to end. Then there are the ‘pantsers’ who live a life of fear, not knowing from one word to the next what their characters are going to say. I am most definitely a pantser.

It took me a long time to discover I was a pantser, or even that they existed, mostly because people who write ‘how to’ books can’t make much money from saying ‘just write’ so only publish books for planners. The truth didn’t dawn on me until I read a protracted interview given by a multi-million selling author who spoke about being a pantser, about just writing and using the editing process to work on the kinks. This information freed me completely and has allowed me to complete three books in eighteen months.

This past month, however, while writing my fourth, I came across a big problem. A married couple in my book had an argument and the wife ran off into the woods to sulk and didn’t decide to go home until it was getting dark. That was a problem because she had been in the area for less than 24 hours so she would have no way to know her way home and she couldn’t just find a road because they are being sought by the authorities. How on earth was I going to get her out of the woods?

For two weeks I was stuck. I couldn’t think of a single way to get her out and my friend, who is also a pantser, really wasn’t as helpful as she had hoped when she told me about a time she had two characters stuck on a beach for ten years while she tried to think of a way off for them. Actually it made me panic slightly. This book couldn’t wait ten years, it was a sequel and I have people waiting for it.

For days I sat staring at the last sentence on the page, then, one wonderful day, it came to me. It wasn’t actually dark, it was getting dark, therefore my character could see where the sun was setting, which meant she could work out east from west. If I also made her remember seeing the sun rise in the living room of the bungalow, looking out onto the road, then she’d know which way to head. Bingo. She was free. Hooray! Phew.

So will this experience make me more of a planner? No, it’s just not in me, but it does make me marvel at the problem solving power of the brain. If I had planned out every detail of my story then I wouldn’t have had the joy of realising I’d finally worked it out, and I wouldn’t have missed that feeling for the world.

No, a pantser I am and a pantser I’ll stay.