Writing is Therapeutic

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Billy Ray today

I don’t normally stray from book reviews, but this was something I had to share since this is a writing/reading community.

Recently, country star Billy Ray Cyrus (1992 hit Achy Breaky Heart) has released his memoir, Hillbilly Heart. I read this in an article published by The Boot about Cyrus’ return to the small screen and his memoir.

Billy-Ray-Cyrus
Billy Ray in the early 90s

Yes, I did love his hit Achy Breaky Heart as kid, and I did watch Hannah Montana on Disney Channel, but that’s not why Cyrus or this article are important to me. Something he said about writing his memoir struck home with me. If someone had asked me why I write, I don’t think I could have said it any better than Billy Ray did. He is perfectly spot-on how I wish I could answer the ever-burning question of why writers write:

The 51-year-old says writing the book was healing for him, even though much of the process was painful at the time. “The book is just the truth,” he tells The Boot. “But in writing it, [I was] remembering and uncovering so many things that I had tried to bury away somewhere because they were painful to think about. Writing the book has been therapeutic.”

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Novelette Review: Chasing Dolphins

Chasing Dolphins by September Lynn Gray (2012)

cover art
cover art

Genre: fiction

This is a novelette by another new-coming author, September Lynn Gray. She has released two novelettes, and is working toward publishing a novel.

When I first charted a deadline for reading Chasing Dolphins and writing a review, I had no idea it wasn’t a full-fledged novel. (Since embarking on this book blog, I try to steer clear of reading the synopsis about a book just on the off-chance that it forms an opinion and expectation in my mind. The worst thing would be for a synopsis to get my hopes up just to have them crash, and having to include that in a review.) When the “book” just ended – The End – I thought it was a joke.

I find Charlene Brown so eerily familiar. Perhaps because she is somewhat of an embodiment of myself: I am a young female, my name is Charlie (short for Charlie), I have a Dottie (my aunt Debbie), and I can relate to the sexuality that Gray exposes of her character.

Charlene is a character who has experienced emotional and physical loss in so many ways. She grew up being disposed of by loved ones, and she tries to hide from the idea that her stepfather killed her ailing mother while swindling her inheritance and chunkin’ a deuce out of town. She was  raised separately by her uncle and grandmother during school years and summers, respectively. Under the care of both she was sexually molested and either thrown out for it or basically called a liar, again proving that she isn’t really loved and she is an option for her loved ones.

She’s 18 and had to figure out her life completely on her own….and she naturally finds the wrong guy to spend forever with. But out of that bad, abusive relationship she earns some professional skills by being the bread winner, knowing she can do it. And she also gets a pretty cool son out of the deal and a friend from work. She finally leaves after finding her supposed best-friend drying her bed sheets with a hair dryer to get rid of the wet remains of her affair with Charlie’s man. So she packs up and moves on.

She moves on, but she doesn’t change much. She frequents bars, hoping that “[i]f [she] sat there long enough, he’d come. Always, the wrong guy [finds her].” She’s lonely, so she’ll go home with strangers in hopes of finding an emotional connection to feel less lonely. She forces herself to
“form a connection with [another] human being, pretending that his touch meant so much more than it did.”

As a woman, I understand this. Halfway through college I decided guys at Texas State were either taken, gay or just all around douchebags. So I turned to online dating, going through two bad relationships just like Charlene’s encounters with strangers that I thought would develop into more. But one day I had to look in the mirror and realize, “Girl, you are nothing to him.” But there was one in between the two bad that gave me hope, which is why I tried again…and ended up with a dud, again. It took me a long time to realize he (the middle one) was just like the first, with just a little more suave. His sweet-talking skills were eventually wasted on me. He should have used them to get a business or law degree – they would have served him better there. In terms of this area of Charlene’s character, I understand and can actually relate. However, I can’t relate to the sexual abuse – I am thankful and grateful that I never had to experience that, but I know some who have, and it’s not pretty.

Her work friend, Dottie, is a native Texan, and is the kinda gal that always seems to find those rich SOBs who blow exuberant amounts of money on the stupidest things and own multiple luxury vehicles. But she’s hung on to Charlene, and it’s not really clear why.

Dottie believes love is expressed through food. She is always trying to feed Charlene, because it’s what Texans do. We may not have a lot, but we show appreciation and love through food. Dottie reminds me starkly of my aunt Debbie, who can feed you breakfast at 8 am and tries to feed you again at 10:30 am, knowing lunch is at noon. That’s just who she is, and that’s how Dottie is. She thinks food will solve some of Charlene’s poverty and employment problems.

After one of these bar run-ins with a local, Charlene finds herself in deadly need of medical attention, and all of a sudden she turns her life around. The end.

Yep, just like that. The end.

In terms of development of the story line, I find it lacking (even for a novelette). All of a sudden, after a LIFETIME of neglect, bad decisions and bad relationships, she makes a 180 turn for the better? I find the ending quite trite, tying up all the loose ends into pretty little bows. Bows don’t go with this story. Charlene is the kind that doesn’t do bows – she rips them out. A lifetime of abandonment, abuse and sexual molestation can’t be packaged up like a gift basket wrapped in cellophane and ribbons. It’s utterly unrealistic, and I must say it disappointed me greatly.

The other thing I found not to my liking was the story behind the title. At a young age, her stepfather promised a trip to Hawaii that would never happen. Despite all his drinking, disappearing, stealing and general philandering, Charlene still believed that she would go to Hawaii and see dolphins, explaining her insatiable need to see them in Corpus. Usually children of that upbringing realize what to expect and what won’t happen. It just doesn’t add up. But, I do understand Charlene’s need to see dolphins. Perhaps it serves as an assurance that her life is on the right track.

But I do sing praises and accolades to Gray in her message to women in these kinds of situations:

Concentrate on finding ways to create your own happiness, rather than rely on men to validate your existence. 

I’ve tried to have that conversation with a friend who was chain-smoking through boyfriends (and she was trying to have the “get out of this bad relationship” talk with me with the middle boy during the same time period) and it ruined a friendship. It’s a hard conversation to have with someone, especially when you love them. But, you do because you love them. Her message is something young women of today need to hear, as so many are relying on men to make their lives fulfilled and meaningful.

I’m not too interested in Gray’s other novelette, Lights and Tunnels (2014) but I am piqued to see what she does with a full-length novel.

Book Review: The Keeper of Dawn

The Keeper of Dawn by J.B. Hickman (Shadeflower Press, 2012)

cover art
cover art

Genre: YA, fiction

*Nominated as a finalist for Young Adult Fiction by the Midwest Book Awards.

*Awarded “Reviewer’s Choice” for Midwest Book Review.

*Contender in Round 2 of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest 2013.

I received a digital copy via Smashwords in return for an honest review.

Curriculum Building Ideas:

  • Language Arts: Reader’s Notebook, Literary Circles, Guided Reading Groups, Writer’s Workshop, Sequencing, Plot, Character Map/Analysis, Inferences/Predictions, Connections (Text to Self, Text to Text, Text to World), Graphic Organizers, Symbol and Theme, Reader’s Theatre, Reflections
  • Social Studies: Scale Diagram of Raker Island, Map of Raker Island, Timeline
  • Math: “Design the Island” – based on information provided from the book, students create floor plans, diagrams or models of Wellington Academy

This is Hickman’s debut novel, and I found it interesting that he shared how pieces of this book came to be, including the title and some of the research he did. If you are a budding writer, you may want to check it out.

They had become a stain in my memory, the letters bleeding indeterminably together. But their impact lingered. 

Hickman most definitely hits the proverbial nail on the head, in so many ways in The Keeper of Dawn. Rebellion at its finest. It rips away the prestige of privileged boys and exposes what lies behind them, both in their personal lives and their school/career lives. The Raker Island lighthouse is both a symbol and a motif in this novel about four young boys sent to boarding school. I could not put this book down, and thought I’d finish it in one sitting. But life interrupted, and I had to finish in a few installments late at night which I think detracted from the momentum of the novel, and also the emotional connection between the characters and I. I’ve tried to capture all that I could in this review without spilling the beans, but let me tell you two things: Hickman’s written a stellar novel, and you won’t be disappointed! This book belongs alongside other award-winning young adult novels about coming of-age, life lessons and facing demons of the past.

Nothing stays for long. Nothing but that lighthouse.

Oh, how true this proves to be…

Sons of great men are sent to a belly-up island resort turned prep school, Wellington Academy, off the coast of Rhode Island. Rebellion is in the minds of adolescent boys, especially the flashy Governor’s angry son, Chris, who detests his father’s attitudes and tries to be everything his father is not. He acts out extremely to bring a glaring light onto Governor Forsythe.

Jacob Hawthorne, the main character, is a serious 15 year-old son of privilege. Yet he is nervous to meet his father, the “great vanisher” who continually disappears out of his life, on the celebratory parents’ day at his school. His mother professes that he’s a great man, but she’s not entirely convinced herself. Indeed, Jacob is sent to Raker Island to Wellington, the same resort island his parents honeymooned on. He’s been sent there so he won’t follow in his older brother’s footsteps, and he’s determined not to enjoy a moment of it. He yearns for his father’s approval – would even settle for acknowledgement – and has stolen a photo of his father from his mother’s wedding album. His father stands on the very same island he is now imprisoned on, and he often finds himself gazing at the photo.

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Mr. Stanley Roper (Normal Fell)

Benjamin Bailey, Jacob’s roommate, is the overweight kid who’s always left out, and swears he plays fair. Although he is a pessimist – or rather, because of it – he keeps his “unfavorable opinions to himself.” However, that quickly changes when popular Chris cozies up to him for a covert mission after lights-out. It goes terribly wrong for Ben, who then avoids the boys even though they rescued him. Things continue to get horribly worse for Benjamin at Wellington, forcing him to leave. 😦

Derek Meyhew is the equivalent of Mr. Roper from Three’s Company: the nosy neighbor, always butting and barging in. In the very first chapter, he’s telling Benjamin how to do up his tie with the eerily foreshadowing comment: The secret to a proper noose is you need just enough length to hang yourself. 

After a run-in with the ill-fated Chris and his sidekick Roland leaves them all with the punishment of helping the maintenance man, Max, restore the buildings and grounds, and another run-in with a group of upper-classmen and two quite accidental plays on the football field during an intramural game between halls, Jacob’s in for it. There will be no more “flying under the radar” for Jacob Hawthorne at Wellington…but a bond grows between him and the school’s maintenance man, Max, that will prove invaluable.

Looking for Alaska | John Green
Looking for Alaska | John Green

These boys band together for mischievous purposes at Wellington, breaking quite a few rules. The old abandoned lighthouse, rumored to be haunted, serves as a place that makes these young men face the the not-so-well hidden realities of their lives, their families, and ultimately their destinies, serves to leave the buried secrets and fears in the dark…and incites them to grander adventures. It reminds me starkly of the barn scene (The Best and Worst Days) in Looking for Alaska in such a way that both makes me happy as a reader, but sad given what I know will eventually happen.

Meanwhile, other boys are taking notice of the group, begrudgingly dubbed The Headliners, in honor of their morning ritual of pouring over the news headlines searching for news of their fathers, when one day all of their fathers make headlines: Chris looking for Governor Forsythe’s next ridiculous act for attention to get voted back into his cozy seat; Derek seeing how his father’s home security company is faring financially; Roland perusing his four-star general father’s new post-Vietnam military strategies, and Jacob catching up on the court rulings so he doesn’t hear his judge father’s decisions from someone else. The Headliners take it upon themselves to help Jake out when it comes to his arch enemy, “Loosy-Goosy” by playing a few pranks on him.

Dead Poet's Society
Dead Poets Society

Wellington’s new “absent-minded” history professor, O’Leary, from a rival school, is much like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society. He invokes the students to question, to think, and he also pursues Jacob in an effort to provide some guidance and support. At their first meeting, he assures the students:

It is my job to present the facts. It is your job to decipher them. There will be no fence-sitters in my classroom. To not have an opinion is to not be informed. 

A few grand schemes lead to some very unplanned and unexpected scares and injuries, separating all the boys. Long hidden secrets are revealed; all but one. Hype and the outside world is brought to the secluded island when Wellington hosts the 1980 Senatorial Debate – and things go horribly, horribly wrong, as planned by the boys. This begins the unmistakable scrutiny of both Wellington and Chris’ governor father. But as the book progresses and nears the end, you find that things are not quite as they seem with Jacob and his father, and a long-buried, painful memory is brought into the light of day in the newly renovated and serviceable Raker lighthouse.

Denial can lie very thick in a child’s heart.

But if certain events are edited, perhaps even omitted altogether, how much trust can we put in the printed word?

I had forgotten most of it, or made up lies to decive myself into believing something less hurtful than the truth. 

The three quotes above are the essence of this book. We can’t talk about it – buy you can find out what I mean by reading the book. 🙂

The title of this book comes from a quote by a Coast Guard man whose grandfather was a lighthouse keeper:

They started a movement to preserve their profession. They wanted to go back to the way things were. All those years lighting the night sky, of preserving at least a glimmer of the dawn, and they didn’t know how to live without it. Something very dear had been taken from them, and they fought with everything they had to not let it go.

They were the Keepers of Dawn…just as Jacob will become.

The prologue is a bit disjointed, and it’s not clear in the divided section where he is. From vague comments, the first seems to be his initial trip to boarding school, while the second is back at his often deserted home. The fact that nothing looked recognizable to him suggests some amount of time has passed. The disjointedness of the first few chapters and the confusion in the last few will all be revealed – and explain these peculiarities (and in this case, tools) of writing.

Jacob’s memories don’t match up with the physical appearances of the present, but he is always pressing on … because of David. His parents hold his grandfather responsible for what happened to his older brother, David, and the reason behind why he left. Jacob seeks out his estranged grandfather to find out exactly what kind of hand he had in David’s leaving, and ends up forging a new-found bond that endures while he is at Wellington. It stays unchanged and keeps him grounded when everything else in his life is going one speed: hellbent.

The first chapter is noticeably jumpy from the first to second paragraphs, creating the same disjointedness as in the prologue. This appears again throughout the novel, juxtaposing the present with the past. It’s not clear why this is until it’s occurred few times. His flashbacks of the times spent with his grandfather are indeed juxtaposed in a sequence creating a parallel of his relationship with his grandfather and his experiences at Wellington: when he recounts first meeting his grandfather after all the years (and the David business), it directly follows the new start at Wellington; becoming familiar and less formal with his grandfather also follows an event of The Headliners in which it is apparent that they are indeed friends.

His grandfather is remarkable in that he has a lot of metaphors and similes about life, such as the following about bonsai trees:

*in reference to him, his son (Jake’s father), and David (and even Jake himself)….

Like most of us…they’re set in their ways. It’s taken years for their branches to grow to where you see them today. They have to be guided when they are young by wiring their trunks. Then the sunlight takes things from there. For most of them, it would be hard to change their location. The young ones could handle it, but the older ones like Julius here wouldn’t much care for it at all.

*in reference to his son’s absence from most of Jake’s life (and probably David’s too)….

Their name is a reminder that their life is in your hands….And they’ll know if you neglect them.

Being a good caretaker requires more than just performing the day-to-day chores. Perhaps most important of all, a bonsai needs to be loved. 

*in reference to himself and his son, and their behavior to their sons….

I meddle too much. I either cut too far back, or trim too often. That’s the mistake of an amateur – to try and do too much. You don’t want to smother them, but it’s human nature to tamper, to try to mold them into a particular image. It’s a mistake made innocently enough, but one that can have disastrous consequences. 

spoiler-alert

One of the many sad parts of this book was at the end of the chapter with the bonsai trees. Jake adopts one from his grandfather and eventually takes it home. The sight startled his own father and “sealed [his] fate to Raker Island” he was later to discover….and SO SO much more that I wish I could spill because I’m dying to gush about this book, but I don’t want to ruin it. I was saddened to see the progression of the bond between these boys (and the reasons for it), followed quickly by the disintegration of the boys’ friendship, as predicted by Mr. O’Leary in his warning to Jacob in the very beginning:

Are you part of it, Jake? Or are you caught up in it?….In adolescence, boys are clannish. Girls are intimate, but boys are more tribal. They’re like wolves – they socialize in packs. They’re loyal to those in their pack, but suspicious of outsiders. When a boy comes to boarding school, he is alone for the first time in his life. As a result, he loses his identity in the group. But it is also in the group that he truly finds himself. Forget about education, forget about the Ivy League and that six-figure job at the end of the road. A boarding school’s real mission is to give boys good tribes with good elders. If this is done properly, they will prosper and grow. But give them no tribes, and they will create their own without elders, and they will become irretrievably lost.

That’s what a scare is. A reminder that once upon a time you were hurt bad enough to be changed by it. 

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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Book #3 cover art

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999)

Genre: Fiction, young adult (YA), fantasy, supernatural

Curriculum Building Ideas:

  • Language Arts: Reader’s Notebook, Literary Circles, Guided Reading Groups, Writer’s Workshop, Sequencing, Plot, Character Map/Analysis, Inferences/Predictions, Connections (Text to Self, Text to Text, Text to World), Graphic Organizers, Book vs. Movie (i.e. Venn Diagram, Persuasive Essay), Reader’s Theatre
  • Social Studies: Scale Diagram of Hogwarts, Map of Hogwarts, Timeline of Hogwarts vs. Real World…
  • Math: “Design Hogwarts” – based on information provided from the book, students create floor plans, diagrams or models of what they think Hogwarts looks like; “Potions” – students measure and record ingredients for the science part of this lesson (below)…
  • Science: “Potions” – students use correct measurements of ingredients to predict reactions between chemicals, create a set number of reactions, and record the reaction and observations in their science journals…

*Author’s Note: There have been numerous reviews of Harry Potter to date, and  Rowling has racked up many awards for her books.  I’m going to try and stay away from writing things that can be easily found in other reviews from years past. Note that I am now nearly 24 years old and this is my first time reading Harry Potter, which was published when I was in elementary school. I remember my mother reading them, and then my middle brother. I was into other genres, and for some reason I had an unfounded stigma toward Harry Potter. I have seen the first four movies; I didn’t really keep up with the latter movies. But I didn’t know what was going on because I missed out on so much that was in the books! I wish that I had read Harry Potter as I was growing up, instead of waiting – I feel that I’ve lost a lot of the magic in waiting, and also in seeing the movies before reading the books. The basic premise of Harry Potter is about Harry Potter himself, and discovering who and what he is, where he came from and his quest to becoming what he’s destined to become – a great wizard, with a bond not seen before in the wizard world of magic (i.e. Voldemort).

spoiler-alert

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read the first two books, this may give some things away. Read at your own risk.

We already know from the first two books that the books is aligned with the school year at Hogwarts: it begins with Harry in the last few days or weeks of his summer stay with the Dursleys, and ends with him returning home on the train. We also know that through a little disobeying and curiosity that Harry (along with Ron and Hermione) will end up in some troubling situation, so far involving Voldemort. But Book #3 is a little different. Voldemort never makes an appearance, but  someone thought long dead does. This book involves a lot of history about Harry’s parents, James and Lily, and exposes the truth of their death and who really betrayed him.

Harry’s done it now: he’s on the run from the Dursleys AND the Ministry of Magic (he thinks). He is greeted in Diagon Alley by the Minister of Magic himself. He doesn’t care so much that Harry’s broken a law (performing magic in the Muggle world), he just wants Harry tucked away safe and sound in the Leaky Cauldron until school starts. Not long after the Weasleys follow suit, and Harry overhears a very scary conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. Sirius Black, Voldemort’s biggest supporter back in the day, imprisoned for 12 years in Azkaban for killing 13 people with one spell, is on the loose…and he’s coming for Harry!

Not only is Sirius after Harry, but so are other “death omens,” as always. On the train Harry runs into Dementors, vile life-sucking creatures, and is saved by a new professor. With Black on the loose, they are posted all over Hogwarts – and they keep coming after Harry, making him relive the death of his parents.

The new professor for the Defense Against the Dark Arts is truly a teacher, bringing new life to his students and much more applicable knowledge. He’s the best they’ve had, and he’s agreed to help Harry learn how to fight off the Dementors. But something odd happens once every month…he disappears for a while around the full moon.

Halloween night, Gryfindors are in for a shock when they return to the portrait hole and the Fat Lady has flown the coop, absolutely terrified – and the ravishes of the intruder’s anger left behind for all to see. None other than Sirius Black! The castle goes on lock down mode, with Black nowhere to be found.

There are some close calls for Harry and Ron (and Scabbers) as Sirius Black has snuck into the castle undetected again. Harry comes into possession of a special map, with secret passageways that he uses to travel from Hogwarts to the nearby wizarding town of Hogsmeade, using his Invisibility Cloak of course. But this map also shows people, and the direction they are going….

Unbeknownst to Harry and Ron, Hermione has been time traveling to take extra classes. She and Harry end up using it, at the hint from Dumbledore, to save two lives…and in turn, make Snape go a little mad. Needless to say his hatred of Harry is much more evident.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book since it explores and exposes the truth behind Harry’s parents’ deaths, we see Harry quite uplifted, and and we see yet again Dumbledore bending some rules and his amusement. Not to mention the whirlwind of  possibilities now that er, Scabbers, has escaped. If you’ve never read the Harry Potter series, I highly encourage you to do so. It is truly an enjoyable (and easy) read.

Check out what Harry, Ron and Hermione will run into in the next book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.