Tag Archives: Bullying

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

If The Story of Arthur Truluv was a movie, you’d find it on the Hallmark Channel. Elizabeth Berg has created one of those melodramatic, heart wrenching, over the top dramas filled with the angst of loves both lost and found as three disparate characters find comfort as they form an unusual sort of alliance.

You have the teen girl who doesn’t know where her life is headed living with a father who has been disconnected from his daughter since the tragic death of his wife. Maddy doesn’t seem to fit in with anyone at school and even the new boy indicates he is not interested. Since everywhere she goes her peers whisper and mock, she skips school to spend time reflecting at a local cemetery. She’s not the only one who finds the locale soothing. It is here that Maddy meets octogenarian Arthur Moses, an elderly gentleman who every day brings a bag lunch to his wife’s gravesite to enjoy a meal with his long gone mate. Somehow the two form a connection and Arthur lets Maddy know that he’ll be there for her if she ever needs a friend. Then there’s Arthur’s elderly neighbor, Lucille, who spends her days sitting out on her porch keeping track of all the doings, collecting gossip the way some people collect stamps. Her opinionated manner is excused by her skill in the kitchen, freely sharing her creations with Arthur. Arthur, who mostly eats canned beans and franks (which he divvies up with his cat), sympathizes with the lonely woman as he eats her mouth watering butter orange blossom cookies. Somehow, through a series of events, the three end up facing the future together finding comfort and even happiness as they create a unique sort of blended family transcending the usual mother, father, child homelife.

Add in a kind hearted teacher who reaches out to his artistic, though lackluster student, a lost love who finds his way home, and a skeevy boyfriend who just wants a good time without any commitments, and you have a charming little story perfect for a rainy afternoon.

While the simplistic style fits the subject matter and the rotating point of view between the three main characters gives us a decent grasp of their motivations, I had a problem with the use of present tense to tell the story. Very few are able to use this technique successfully, and Berg, unfortunately, is not one of those authors, at least not in this book. Perhaps modifications were made before publication, since my copy was an ARC provided by Netgalley (in exchange for an honest review). I also felt the ending was too abrupt, I would have liked a little more closure, especially considering the book was only 220 or so pages (and give us some dates, not just clues from the headstones). Of note, however, were the sweet little vignettes from the graveyard, where Arthur was able to relate telepathically with the deceased and share bits and pieces of their life and death with the reader. Three and a half stars.

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Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Children can be cruel, especially middle school age kids. It’s the reason that most teachers choose to work at elementary or high school, they can’t deal with the angst involved with the hormonal surges of pre-teenagers. It takes a special breed to actually enjoy that age group, children who once they find a weakness in their peers have no qualms in exploiting that fact, whether real or imaginary. “Your nose is too big”, “Your hair is greasy”, “You’re too fat”, “You’re too thin”, “You smell”, You’re stupid”, “You’re smart” . . . Now imagine that you really do have a physical “abnormality” which is front and center and impossible to ignore? Wonder by R. J. Palacio explores the reaction of a private school community to August Pullman, a ten year old boy with a rare congenital defect which has distorted his facial features.

August was home schooled, both due to the recovery periods from his twenty seven surgeries and also to shield him from the reactions of his peers. However, by the time he was ready to start fifth grade, his mother wondered if it wasn’t time to consider a school setting, Beecher Prep, a private school in New York City with a “limited” population. August is leery, but he agrees to check it out. Three of his incoming classmates are chosen to show him around prior to the start of the school year. While Jack and Charlotte seem nice, Julian is outright nasty. After much discussion, August decides to give it a go. The whole experience is not an easy one, neither for August, his parents, or his older sister Olivia Pullman. The adjustment involves not just August, but his classmates, as everyone learns to deal with one another – a process fraught with tension, not just from the kids but also from some of the parents. It’s a time of growth for all, and August develops from a spoiled child into a self assured young man over the course of the year despite or perhaps because of the challenges thrown his way.

What I really liked about this well written, age appropriate children’s book (which should also be read by adults) is the narrative approach Palacio uses to tell August’s story. While it was Auggie’s tale to tell, his life also affected others so we get to hear the point of view of various events from his sister Via, her “best” girlfriend Miranda and boyfriend Justin, a couple of August’s friends – Jackalope and Summer, and even his nemesis – Julian Albany. While we mainly hear August’s voice, it was also important to get the perspective of the people who surrounded him.

Even if you go into this book feeling aloof, eventually the uplifting message grabs you and pulls at your heartstrings. While some might question the happy ending, remember that there was a lot of cruelty along the way. I can only imagine what a tear jerker the movie version evokes. I also appreciate how the educators were cast in a positive, supportive light – they even impart some knowledge on the reader. The additional chapter from Justin’s point of view is a good counterbalance with a surprise revelation which creates a positive outcome for all concerned. Although a little lengthy, it’s still a perfect book for fifth grade ELA! Five stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Calamity! Yes, it’s one calamity after another in the small seaside resort area in Pirriwee, Australia when Madeline sprains her ankle on her way to kindergarten orientation with her precocious daughter Chloe. New resident Jane with her son Ziggy assists the injured woman as they both drop their children off to meet the prospective teacher. Madeline and Jane end up on the beach at the Blues Blue coffee shop where Celeste, the mother of twins, joins them to help the injured party celebrate her birthday. The gift of champagne and flutes are perfect, despite the early hour, because Madeline is now f-o-r-t-y. The party atmosphere continues as they go to pick up their darlings until little Amabelle accuses Ziggy of choking her. Despite the tot’s denial, the parents end up sorting themselves into team Renata (Amabelle’s mum) vs Team Madeline. Amidst the conflict and resulting bedlam, the families deal with the normal chaos of raising children. While behind the scenes each couple has secrets which are slowly revealed, it is the flamboyant, gutsy Madeline who meets life head on, guiding her friends through their individual crisis. She even tries to be “civil” to her ex husband and new wife who also have a daughter attending the same kindergarten program, (although on PMS days, her behavior might not be “quite polite” towards those who have slighted her or her friends).

As the story progresses, bad behaviors escalate until the climax on Trivia Night, a costumed fundraising competition, where an altercation and death occurs. The event is alluded to via short vignettes placed at the beginning or end of a chapter, with various participants giving their take on exactly what happened through the questioning by Investigating Officer Quinlan. The reader is left trying to sort fact from fiction and figure out exactly who the victim might be.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is an amusing, witty romp dealing with societal pressures, spousal abuse, infidelity, love and loss, bullying, blended families, teen angst, working mothers, and fragile egos. Who knew a story about a class of kindergarteners could be so much fun!

Five stars for a “can’t stop reading” book. (For a real treat listen to the CD expertly read by Caroline Lee who makes each character your personal friend or enemy). We will have to wait and see if the upcoming version on HBO retains the flavor of the original novel when the locale is moved from Australia to California.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Love Blind by Christa Desir and Jolene Perry

Shit happens, but it’s how ones deal with it that matters. Take Kyle and Hailey. Kyle is excessively shy, literally unable to express himself aloud (although he’s great at putting his thoughts down in his journal). He’s also carrying around a shitload of guilt for situations which aren’t really his fault. Then there’s Hailey who has the eyes of a geriatric patient, one who is gradually becoming more and more blind. Hailey’s created a list of things she’s scared to do, a bucket list of sorts with actions to be completed while she can still somewhat see. Her one main joy is her acoustical guitar and the ability to make music. This is where the two teens lives collide in the book Love Blind by Christa Desir and Jolene Perry. Kyle works the soundboard at the school’s radio station and Hailey, with her two best friends/back up singers, shows up to strut her stuff and promote their band. Hailey is amused and intrigued by Kyle’s mumbles and one word responses and goads him into an awkward semi-friendship which grows into something more over time. Yet even though they like each other, Kyle feels unworthy and Hailey thinks she’s hurting more than helping, so a potential hook up between the two morphs into an “on again, off again” relationship even though everyone thinks they are a good influence on one another. The miscommunications dominate the scenario and this book becomes a story of “what ifs” and “should have beens”. Hailey is head strong and forges ahead, often making questionable choices, while Kyle’s in-decisions and lack of confidence holds him back from living up to his full potential. Yet over the three plus year period this story takes place, there is a continuing hope towards some sort of positive resolution.

A relatable topic dealing with the process of overcoming life’s obstacles which crop up from time to time – some self inflicted, others due to the callousness of others, and the rest just part of the tragedy of day to day living. The authors, Desir and Perry, take turns with alternate chapters, writing the story from the viewpoint of each of the two main characters. An easy read with a lot to say on current topics including high school angst, teen sexuality, lesbian relationships, bullying, and drug abuse. That the conclusion, although abrupt, doesn’t wrap everything up with a nice, neat bow is a big plus. Four stars.

Thank you to Netgalley and Simon Pulse for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D Schmidt

Gary D Schmidt must have lived in Ancient Greece during a former life since he has developed the concept of tragedy into an art form in the new YA book, Orbiting Jupiter. Get out the hankies, this one is a real tear jerker. The parenting gene will go into overdrive as we read about motherless Jack whose father gets his jollies by beating up his only son. Then, while accompanying his dad on a plumbing job in an upscale neighborhood, Jack meets Madeline. After that the thirteen year old walks seven miles each way in all sorts of weather to spend time with this girl who quickly inhabits his heart. Then one day she kisses him and they end up together in the biblical sense. He gets caught and is sent away for his sins, first at one facility and then to a real killer institute. Inbetween times he discovers that Maddie has become pregnant and then that he has a daughter called Jupiter, named after their favorite planet.

All this information comes out later, but in the beginning of the story we meet Jamie and his folks who have decided to welcome Jack as a foster child into their home on an organic farm. Jack, who rarely speaks and remains skittish after some ugly events back at the home, gradually opens up as he interrelates with the farm animals and responds to the true affection provided by the Hurd family.

Yet it’s a long road from damaged to healed, and not smooth sailing for any of the participants as Jack seeks a path to wholeness through the idea of reuniting with his baby daughter. There is no sugar coating to the injustices found in bureaucracy or the nastiness of middle schoolers when they discover a weakness in a fellow student. Jack has too much baggage to be readily accepted by his peers although his abilities are recognized by some caring adults (finally a positive voice about the role of teachers in the life of their students).

This story is told through the voice of twelve year old James Hurd who grows to care for his “roommate” and continually demonstrates that he has Jack’s back, in the face of dangerous or threatening situations. Even though this story evolves around kids, don’t expect smooth sailing or happy endings.

Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this book, but the plot reads more like my favorite soap opera where evil awaits around every corner with little pockets of hope for positive outcomes in impossible situations. Contrived might be a good word to describe this heart breaker. Also, Orbiting Jupiter is almost too short with some events occurring so rapidly that the reader can’t get a grip on what’s happening until it’s all over, in spite of anticipating this very outcome.

Although written for a YA audience, Orbiting Jupiter will appeal to the younger crowd, especially when they see it is less than two hundred pages. Well written, but easy to read, Schmidt doesn’t dumb down his dialogue and tackles some issues rarely talked about but of concern to young teens. Four stars.

Thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Big Nate: Say Goodbye to Dork City by Lincoln Peirce

Over the years I’ve read and laughed at the Big Nate cartoons in the Sunday Comics page, so I was excited to preview Big Nate: Say Goodbye to Dork City by Lincoln Peirce. Mr. Peirce certainly has a sense of the absurd, demonstrated by the various adventures of Nate, an eleven year old boy attending sixth grade at PS 38. The author draws upon his own experiences growing up and then adapts them into the comic book venue. While some parents might be horrified at characters who mock adults, ignore the rules, and get into numerous misadventures, children recognize that the stories told are all in good fun, not to be confused with a checklist of behaviors to emulate. On occasion there is a moral to be learned, even if it is told in a bizarre or convoluted way. You see, children get it and the grosser the story, the better they like it. Peirce is going for laughs and sometimes his audience is the parents who should be reading these books along with their kids. Topics such as sportsmanship, competition, bullying, and school are explored with a humorous tone. What a great way to enter into a discussion on the issues facing today’s students.

As a librarian, I can assure parents that those reluctant readers will enjoy both the style and the topic of this book. Students in the mid to upper elementary grades through middle school, and even high schoolers and adults will smile and LOL at Big Nate’s antics. In this particular book, one of the story sets is about Nate attempting to be part of the “cool” kid’s crowd. Once he becomes part of Marcus’ posse, he must give up hanging out with his dorky friends. Nate soon discovers that being a dork is better than being a “poop” boy to a bully, but leaving the posse has repercussions. This is just one of many mini adventures found within this book. (My favorite cartoon is where Nate is disgusted when his friend’s cat is coughing up a hairball, which his dog then proceeds to eat. – Ewwwwwww!)

Four stars for a fun read which I’m sure all kids will enjoy. Thanks to Netgalley and Andrews McMeel Publishing for this ARC download in exchange for an honest review.

Since You’ve Been Gone by Mary Jennifer Payne

In a YA book, the expectations for great literature are not very high. Teens tend to want a fast paced story with some action, a bit of conflict, a touch of romance, and a dose of angst thrown in for good measure. Mary Jennifer Payne has tossed all this into the mix in her novel, Since You’ve Been Gone, with a varying degree of success.

Edie and her mom are constantly on the run from an abusive father who has a tendency towards violence whenever conflicts arise, which is fairly often. The day he placed a hand on Edie was the day her mother packed their bags and left home, successfully eluding her husband for five years by constantly switching from one locale to the next. Although Toronto was their original home, this latest move finds the two in London, England, where Sydney Fraser spent her youth.

Edie is sick of the constant upheaval and now she’s in a new country with different customs. Her first day at school she meets (and rejects) the school nerd, is accosted by the school bully, and settles in with some potential friends. The teachers are not overly welcoming and she is reprimanded for being late. While striving to keep a low profile, she needs to find a solution to a major catastrophe in her life – the sudden, prolonged disappearance of her mom. After stealing the fundraising jar of money meant to help build a school for girls in Afghanistan, she is able to fund a weekend to search for her missing parent. Unfortunately, a fellow classmate, Jermaine, is the one accused of theft. Even though he knows that Edie is the culprit, he remains mum in exchange for the truth. Together the two set out on a manhunt to discover the whereabouts of Sydney Fraser.

As an American, I cannot attest to the accuracy of the various landmarks in London. Common names, such as Tim Horton’s (a popular coffee shop throughout Canada started by a famous hockey player), Starbucks, and Burger King are relatable to those of us living in North America. Other customs may be a little alien, such as double decker buses and the metro system. They add a little spice to the story. Also of interest are the racial dynamics facing a black teen born and raised in England. Jermaine seems to face some prejudice, with teachers dismissing his intelligence and punks threatening to knife him in full view of a crowd, but it doesn’t extend to the developing friendship/romance between the two protagonists and, in spite of his questionable treatment, Jermaine remains one of the good guys.

Unfortunately, the plot line has a potential which is never reached. One of my criticisms is that the story takes place within about a week’s time. The idea that all the events unfold this quickly defies logic. And even though it is a relatively short novel (the perfect length for a YA story) there are sections which drag. While the premise is interesting, the specific events leading up to the climax are dull, in spite of some “erroneous events” popping up along the way that at times enhance and at other times detract from the story. There are also a lot of random characters who make brief appearances but aren’t worth noticing. In addition, Edie’s thoughts are too often like a broken record. The most complex and interesting character is Jermaine. I would have liked to have heard more of his story. The romance between these two was gentle and appropriate for fifteen or sixteen year olds, with more of an emphasis on friendship then on passion.

Just because a book is meant for Young Adults, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve well developed characters with interesting motivations. Ms Payne needs to know when to spend more time on a topic, and when to eliminate unnecessary elements to the story, in order to create a more cohesive whole. Hopefully her next novel will reflect these recommendations. I give this book three stars.

I would like to thank Dundurn Press from Ontario, Canada and Netgalley for allowing me to download a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.