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 Muse Has Returned

by Carol Thomas

I have been struggling with writing fiction since I found out I was pregnant last August. I was so distracted with getting to the next milestone in the pregnancy that my mind was unable to concentrate on anything else.

As New Year 2014 neared I started to panic that I would find myself years down the line, once the child was at pre-school, one of those people who tells people they ‘used to write.’

100k100days started on January 1st and I resolved to take that on again. I found it hard to create fiction so threw myself into writing non-fiction for my Life Story that I am dabbling with. I found this easier because I didn’t have to make anything up, the material was already there.

I found it frustrating though not being able to write what I really wanted to. My imaginary friends wouldn’t talk to me. January brought with it the plans for the Writebulb anthologies, not one but two! Then there was the little matter of my unfinished thriller that I had promised myself I would have finished last year.

I forced myself to work on my own novel; luckily I had made notes of what I needed to do. I wrote blog posts in longhand and read more to try to get my brain moving.

Then something amazing happened! I had a couple of opening chapters tucked away that I had started but found I didn’t like. I re-read them and realised what was wrong with one of them and why it hadn’t worked. I liked the plot idea so wiped it, only keeping character names and basic plot, then started writing. The words flowed.

Then something crazy happened. I realised what was wrong with the other story. I was so excited by it that I had to get that opening re-written.

So now only a few days after struggling to write any fiction I have three to work on. I am dividing my writing time between them all.

I also have the first anthology piece well under way, so hopefully this will be a good writing year for me.

 

Writing and composing

by Ian Wilson

In the half term break, my wife and I were faced with the problem of how to get a seventeen-year-old to take a family holiday with us. We hit on the idea of a trip to Manchester so that we could look do the university tour and consider the music department as a place for him to study. Wandering around the campus together, we were congratulating ourselves on our insight into teenage psychology when my wife noticed this plaque:

Blue Plaque to commemorate Anthony Burgess - writer

My first reaction was one of surprise. Who knew that the writer of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was also a composer? When I got home I decided to explore his work. To my astonishment, I discovered that composition was Burgess’s first love and that he’d written well over 250 works. Apparently, he spent much of his life unsuccessfully trying to gain recognition for his music, only managing one-off, unrecorded performances at literary events. I thought I’d have a nose round the internet to see if I could find something to which I could listen and found he’d written ‘A Manchester Overture’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5Jo-4AlOaY) to celebrate his time in the city. I was struck by its invention and the quality of his orchestration. Why wasn’t this music better known?

This made me think about whether it is possible to be a successful polymath. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Omar Khayyám notwithstanding, most famous people are only recognized in one field. Does our need to pigeonhole people prevent us from appreciating their broader contribution to culture? Or is it that we are too narrow in our understanding of creativity?

I have been a composer for some time (http://www.thechoralagency.com/composers.html) but it has only been in the last year that I have turned my attention to writing. Trying to put a young adult novella together has been a steep learning curve for me and has made me consider the similarities and differences between the process of writing and that of composition.

The most important similarity that I’ve found is the need to constantly revise my work. I find it so easy to settle on an idea before I have had the chance to consider other possibilities. At one song writing workshop that I attended, the leader stressed the need to write lots of potential verses so that the best ones could be selected for the final lyrics. I have often used internet forums to ‘road test’ initial versions of my songs so that I can get extra pairs of ears on them before honing them to their final forms. When I wrote a song cycle for the Dunblane Chamber Orchestra, I had to revise the work considerably after the first performance because they found it so hard to play, as you will hear if you follow the link (2 mins 11s into the video on the front page of http://dunblanechamberorchestra.org).

It is a great comfort taking the same approach to the ‘terrible first draft’. Author Anne Lamott claims that her first drafts are so bad she worries about getting into a car crash and dying as she’d never want others to see her work before she’s had a chance to revise it. I used the Beta Read service from Eagle Eye Editors (http://eagleeyeeditors.me/beta-reading/) to get someone else to sample my writing efforts. Alison DeLuca, an author of young adult novels, read my book and gave helpful feedback which I am now trying to apply.

The second similarity that I have found between writing music and writing fiction is the need to develop your themes. At university I was taught how Beethoven explored simple ideas (such as the ‘knocking on the door’ theme from his fifth symphony) to the full limit of their potential. In my writing, I am trying to achieve the same clarity of expression, ensuring that I know what central ideas I am following and how they might be developed coherently.

Am I labouring in vain, like Anthony Burgess appears to have done when wearing his composing hat? Almost certainly, but I’m having a lot of fun on the way.

 

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!

 

About the author

by James Batchelor

While taking a brief and mildly egotistical browse through Amazon, I noticed that my name under the listing for my writing group’s anthology linked to some other James Batchelor that writes books.

Now obviously my name’s not unique enough for me to expect to be the only James Batchelor with published fiction – particularly not in a world where absolutely anyone can release an e-book. But I’ll be damned if I’m letting this other Batchelor take credit for my work (to be fair, he may not want a children’s anthology associated with his adult historical fiction series).

So, I’ve just set up my own Amazon author page. All you have to do is go to AuthorCentral.amazon.co.uk and follow the various steps, including associating any books you’ve already published with your account. If you already have an Amazon account for shopping (and nowadays who doesn’t?), you can sign up with that, meaning you don’t have to worry about remembering yet another username and password.

It’s dead easy – suspiciously easy, in fact. I couldn’t help but wonder if I could just take credit for anyone’s books just by claiming I have the same name (why, yes, I’m almost Tom Clancy. How did you know, Amazon?). I’ve now correctly attributed the anthology to me, added a brief biography and a photo, and now I have a place to showcase all my published fiction to my adoring fans. Whenever I acquire them, of course.

It may seem a trivial, almost presumptuous step to do, but if I’m going to get books published, I should ensure there’s no one waiting in the wings to take credit. At the very least, there will be two more Writebulb anthologies on my page by this time next year and, who knows, maybe an e-book of my own.

Obviously, I’ll need to come up with a better headshot, write a more professional biography and, y’know, publish some work, but it’s hopefully laying a foundation.

It’s also a source of motivation. As with writing, if you’ve got a blank page, it’s impossible to resist filling it.