Book Review: The Keeper of Dawn

The Keeper of Dawn by J.B. Hickman (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.

Norman-Fell

Mr. Stanley Roper of Three’s Company (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 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 deceive 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. 

-CA

Book Review: Gabe’s Plan

Gabe’s Plan by Andrew Stock (2012)

Genre: fiction, suspense, criminal justice

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cover art

A little bio about Andrew, per his Goodreads profile:

Andrew Stock is the co-screenwriter of The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (Paramount, 2009). He has Ph.D. in Political Theory from the University of Colorado and a law degree from the University of Texas. He currently works as an attorney for a non-profit organization in North Platte, Nebraska, where he lives. Gabe’s Plan is his first novel.

*Let me preempt by saying I entered the Goodreads book give-away for Andrew’s book. He contacted me via Goodreads and offered to send me a free copy of the book if I’d be willing to write a review, which is no problem for me. I was pleasantly surprised and quite excited that an author sought me out since I’ve just embarked on this book blogging journey. However, Andrew’s kindness has no affect on the content or opinions of this review. Enjoy!

When I first saw the cover art, I was expecting a quant, heartwarming story of some fool man scheming up a romantic plan to win back his heartbroken woman…until I read the book synopsis. Holy Hera! I knew it would be a good read, with repressed lovers, mental health issues and vengeance at the core. I did feel the synopsis said a little too much, but I had a feeling Stock has some unsuspected twists up his sleeve.

Reading the first chapter, I wasn’t expecting quite the content it contained. Fair warning: this is most definitely NOT a “teen” (young adult) book. Expect derogatory, homophobic and sexual commentary like “pulling down panties and spreading”, “new swinging dick,” “fuck his drunk brains out” and blowing a wad. I feel like this is my somewhat douche-y brother talking. So if you are surprised or shocked by that type of language, you can take it in style or take offense – but I encourage you to keep reading.

“…on this painted sky morning, Gabe was certain the American people would wake up ready to send Bush back to Texas, where everything is bigger, including the size of the dipshit in its politics.”

Although the book starts off with Gabe casting his presidential election vote at his elementary school and knowing from the synopsis that he is the DA, I didn’t think there would be much of a political influence. I have to ask myself, Is this a little of the author’s barbing opinion coming out? I wasn’t sure, but I am a Texan born and bred, after all. In all seriousness, I often don’t agree with politics or politicians – no matter the party or the person. I believe in doing what is right, and what makes sense. And I have a sense of humor, and that’s how I read this part. So I’d advise taking this book with a little grain of salt if politics are not your cup of tea. Mmmm, salty tea…not so delish. Let’s make it sugar?

In all seriousness, after the flagrant political and douche bag comments, I was ready to chuck the book, but I pressed on. And then I was ready to give a very critical review of the political nature underlying the book. But…it grew on me. If you are ready to toss this book like I was, keep reading. You are indeed in for a treat.

The Main Players:

  • Gabe, an intelligent Iraqi war veteran with a limp (and the story spread all across his small hometown of Pine Springs, Colorado) is no newcomer to politics. Although he is the District Attorney, his father was the mayor of Pine Springs, and his brother is now the sheriff. Gabe has moved back into his childhood home with Mom after his father’s recent death. Unlike his sheriff brother, Gabe is pro-Kerry and hates Bush – who cost him his leg – with a passion. He often wishes his thoughts weren’t so trivial and normal, but more of Einstein quality.
  • Chad, arrogant, spoiled, 5-time big screen (and womanizing) movie star fresh to Pine Springs for some “R and R” at a whopping $15mil estate he bought (why not rent?) has his eye on local  Kaila, who just happens to be carrying the torch for someone else. Quite a challenge, Chaddie. Gabe sure has set Chad off in a fit – all because of Kaila. Let me say this: Chad is an egotistical jackass of a bully. I mean, the man greets his agent, “Hey fag.”
  • Kaila, 23-year-old movie-loving rasta barista, doesn’t want any of Chad because she’s on a mission: finally win over her childhood crush, Gabe, who dropped unmentioned (probably drug-related) charges against her – and she has a plan to get him.
  • Fred, Gabe’s sheriff brother, is pro-Bush and so naive. He’s not a good people-reader. Poor guy. But he is gung-hoe about his job – and seizes opportunities, albeit a little illegally.

Despite his womanizing ways, Chad is a “devout Republican and a big-time believer in the institution of monogamous heterosexual marriage.” He has no care for how his overt sexcapades can end up hurting hurting his Hollywood image (or is that his image?) let alone a ton of women, but he cares for the sanctity of marriage. Seriously? What a contradiction! Chad’s “moral grounding” doesn’t hold much water.

Stock has set up a good foil here: Chad and Gabe are opposites. Gabe is an intelligent war veteran-turned-attorney. He is respectable (both in part from his war tour and his current DA job) and due to his position, beyond moral reproach. Chad on the other hand, is a glutton bully with ravishing sexual habits. He’s the kind of douche who will hog the sidewalk and make a gimp war veteran step off the path and into a puddle. This strikes a special cord in me, as the men in my family have all given up of their bodies and abilities to serve our country in almost every branch. Needless to say, I don’t see much growth for Chad. And Gabe’s the kind of guy who will say his peace, yet again be shoehorned because he’ll be late for his DA appointments. But one too many times and… just keep on smirking asshole.

Chad is most definitely threatened by Gabe – he uses multisyllabic words! With Chad and Gabe’s feud over Kaila, Chad may have more monetary influence, but Gabe has more power and the upper hand. I’m not sure that he loves, let alone likes Kaila overmuch, but he’s placing her in the hot seat to pursue his vengeance of Chad the Bully. I’m sure I’ve seen that episode of Cold Case Files; cop frames ex-lover’s paramour and takes him down – and despite my propriety for right and justice…in that sick and twisted way that is human nature, I get it. I really do. It’s relatable – no matter the situation. Someone consistently abuses their powers (whether supposed like Chad’s, or real like Gabe’s) at the expense of others, and karma’s a bitch of a payback.

gabe

Archangel Gabriel, c. 13th century, Anonymous

Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, Gabe is caught in a love triangle…or square without one side – and it may just blow his case, which he claims is the “biggest criminal case of the 21st century,” and not just because his assistant wants to be “on Gabe faster than a coyote on a sack of cheeseburgers” to “fuck his drunk brains out.” Now, that made me laugh! But that quickly changed – and just as I predicted, Stock delivers a quite shocking twist, and then another when Gabe creates an imaginary friend, who just might ruin everything…

Despite what the book synopsis says, I was surprised because it’s not so much Gabe pushing for this revenge as it is Kaila…and although Gabe is dealing with some, er, personal issues, he has visits from his hero, past president Abe Lincoln, and a very unlikely series of conversation ensue. I couldn’t help but notice Gabe’s hero of choice, Abe, is juxtaposed next to Gabe’s name after a particularly pivotal point in the book…and makes me think Gabe means Guilty Abe. I also found it interesting that Stock used the name Gabriel for the main character. We all know Gabriel served as a messenger between God and humans in Biblical times. Is this another manifestation of Gabe’s ego?

The time setting of the book is finally revealed in Chapter 9, when Gabe starts recording information about the trial for his next book at his book agent’s request. Although it’s not made clear how much time has passed, it doesn’t seem more than a short few months. His first entry is dated September 2005 after the preliminary hearing, yet at the beginning of the book Bush had just been re-elected, which would have been November 2004. The timing isn’t fully revealed, but it does take a while to get a case to trial.

I think Stock’s personal sense of humor can be found through Gabe’s writing: he juxtaposes Gabe’s free-writing of a college English class and bad grammar with an incredibly long run-on sentence. As an English minor, I can see irony, humor and reality of it.

And the humor continues.

And just as it is always darkest before the dawn, it is always quietest in a courtroom before a witness answers a question about where his penis had been. 

Actually, he probably loved his kids more than Gabe, but they were four and six-years-old and didn’t seem like real people yet – more like talking pets. 

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Norton and Pitt in Fight Club

As I read further into the last few chapters through the thick and heavy, I had an epiphany. Gabe and his imaginary friend remind me starkly of Edward Norton’s role as The Narrator and Brad Pitt’s role as Tyler Durden in Fight Club. I did an extensive writing project on this movie for my freshman English class, so I’m very familiar with the movie. If you’re not, I encourage you to watch it – a few times – after you’ve read Gabe’s Plan to see the connection. I don’t want to give it away and ruin the movie, or the book, for readers, but the closing photo is a hint.

There’s no neat way to wrap up this novel at the time immediately after the trial, so it surprised me that there was an epilogue. After Fred revealed some of his knowledge to brother Gabe, I was sure the closing arguments of the trial would be the ending of the book – clear cut, yet ambiguous.  (I know, what a paradox.) The epilogue is set during right at Obama’s win over McCain in 2008, and Gabe has indeed become a great man. However, you’ll be surprised who he meets…and the outcome of a murder.

-CA

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