Realistic Fiction

THE RADIUS OF US by Marie Marquardt 

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It took less than two minutes for Gretchen’s life to change.  She was hit from behind, crushed into the asphalt, and robbed.  And then she witnessed something even worse.  Six months later she’s still having panic attacks.  Phoenix has them, too.  After what he experienced of gang violence in El Salvador, and his harrowing journey through Mexico, he is now being treated as a criminal for seeking asylum in the United States.  His brother Ari, in his group home in Texas, is worse:not speaking a word to anyone.  A legal adult at 18, Phoenix is grateful to have a place to live in Atlanta, even though he knows he will soon be sent back and killed. Almost no one from El Salvador is allowed to stay, even when deportation is a death sentence. But when he meets Gretchen, things begin to change.  He begins to enjoy his life in the U.S.  And Gretchen begins to venture out of her shell.  Together, they begin to heal from the traumas gang violence brought to their lives.

A horrifying glimpse into the realities of gang warfare and the Central American refugee journey, The Radius of Us does not shy away from graphic violence.   As disturbing as some scenes are, the novel helps teen (and adult) readers understand how gangs can take hold of the lives of children and teens and what the experience of fleeing to the U.S can mean for these children, including being abducted up by drug cartels and trafficked as slaves.  And memories and flashbacks aside, the story is busting with kindness and hope.  It does have the fairly trite plot where the girl kicks the boy out, but once he’s gone suddenly learns from his friends all these wonderful things about him and must therefore go on a road trip to get him back.  But still a worthwhile read.

THE MORE THEY DISAPPEAR by Jesse Donaldson 

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Sheriff Lee Mattock was popular in the small town of Marathon, KY. No one could believe it when he was murdered. But as deputy Harlan Dupee soon learns, Lew may not have been as innocent and he seemed. Harlan follows the trail of Leo’s killer, gradually uncovering the complicated web of Marathon’s underground Oxycotin trade.  Meanwhile, teenaged Mary Jane finds that getting rid of Lew hasn’t led to the immediate freedom she and her boyfriend thought it would, and the drugs no longer seem to provide enough of an escape. 

Not quite a mystery, Donaldson’s novel is a harsh glimpse into prescription drug abuse in the ’90s and its impact on individuals and communities.  The book may grab some mystery readers due to its subject matter and the puzzle-like way that the whole picture gradually develops, but it will likely appeal most to readers who enjoy gritty, realistic stories about dysfunctional communities, corruption, and seedy small town life. 

HOW TO PARTY WITH AN INFANT by Kaui Hart Hemmings

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Mele thought Bobby would be excited she told him she was pregnant. She definitely didn’t expect him to tell her that he was engaged to another woman.   Raising her daughter on her own, she sought out other parents in the San Francisco Moms Club and after a few failed attempts, finally found the perfect group of unconventional, wine-drinking, occasionally pot-smoking moms (and a dad).  Now she hopes to fulfill her dreams of becoming a writer by winning the SFMC cookbook competition, blending her best recipes with vignettes about the parents she encounters.  And hopefully, by the time she’s done, she’ll have decided whether or not to go to Bobby’s wedding.

Told through a series of vignettes interspersed with Mele’s cookbook application and excerpts from SFMC message boards, this novel will likely appeal most to parents disenchanted with the stereotypical “perfect mom” culture.  The plot didn’t grip me or drive me to keep turning pages, but it was an entertaining read that I took at a slow pace (a chapter every couple of days).  The snarky narration kept me coming back to read a bit more.  Recommended to adults who like realistic fiction, especially parents who enjoy poking fun at mom groups.   

WE ARE PIRATES by Daniel Handler

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Phil Needle has finally figured out the truth about humanity.  “We are pirates!” he announces to the crowd of party- goers who have come to his home to gawk at his wealth.  They don’t understand.  But then, they weren’t part of the insane events that led Phil to this conclusion.  Except, of course, for his teenage daughter, Gwen, the shoplifter, whose supreme dissatisfaction with life was bound to drive her to the high seas.

This strange realistic fiction novel is at times poignant, often humorous, and occasionally deeply disturbingly.  The loose chronology and shifting POVS require the reader to pay close attention, and much of the humor comes from the quirky and often deliberately misleading narration.  You will know a few pages in whether this is the book for you.  I would recommend it to readers who enjoy off-beat, humorous novels and absurd, twisting story lines that keep you guessing. 

LANDLINE by Rainbow Rowell

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Georgie and her writing partner, Seth, are getting the break they’ve been dreaming of since college: a big time producer is considering picking up their show. Not the unbelievably successful sitcom they’ve been writing for the past 10 years–complete with obnoxious actors and even more obnoxious laugh track–but the show they’d been planning since they first started writing together in the ULA comedy magazine almost two decades ago. It’s a once in a lifetime chance, but there’s a catch. They only have one week to draft for new episodes before their pitch, and Georgie and her family have plane tickets to visit Neal’s mother in Omaha for Christmas. Georgie hopes that Neal will be willing to stay home for the holiday, but when he takes the girls to Omaha without her, Georgie is forced to consider the possibility that her marriage is falling apart–especially when he doesn’t answer any of her phone calls.

While staying at her mother’s house, Georgie calls Neal’s mother’s home phone from the old vintage telephone in her childhood bedroom, the one she used to talk with Neal when they were dating in college. But she is astonished to discover that whenever she uses the landline, the Neal who picks up is 22 year old Neal, 1998 Neal, the Neal that she never called after their fight 15 years ago–the last time Neal went to Omaha without her. As she comes to grips with the impossible reality that she has a magic telephone that communicates with the past, Georgie relives her past with Neal as she struggles to figure out a way to save their future.

This is the second realistic fiction love story from Rainbow Rowell that I have absolutely loved. This is not usually my genre, but Rowell has a way of inventing characters that are beautifully flawed, endearing, interesting, and in this case, quite humorous. And the relationships between her characters are incredibly accessible and raw. My husband was on a business trip when I read this book, and it made me ache for missing him. I highly recommend this book to readers who enjoy realistic love stories and don’t mind a twinge of fantasy– i.e., magic phones.

ELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell

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When the new girl with the weird clothes sits next to him on the bus, Park does his best to ignore her and hopes it is a one time thing.  If she wants to draw attention to herself by dressing oddly, that’s her business, but the last thing he needs is for Steve and the other kids at the back of the bus to start picking on him, too. He’s done a good job of keeping his head down so far.  When Eleanor gets on the bus for the first time, she knows the school year is going to suck.  Everyone makes it clear that they don’t want her to sit with them, so she takes an open seat next to an Asian kid and does her best not to bother him.  This is what she has come back to after her year of sleeping on a friend’s couch: a creepy stepfather who still hates her guts and a bus full of hateful high schoolers.

But as the year progresses, Eleanor and Park start to lower their barriers.  They begin to acknowledge one another, to read comics together, to exchange music.  And as their friendship grows into romance, they hesitantly allow one another to catch a glimpse into their deeper struggles, especially in their home lives.

It is hard to describe the brilliance of this book in a summary.  My mother (also a librarian) recommended it to me with no summary saying, “Just read it.  It’s wonderful.”  And it is.  It is one of those books where the words themselves are engaging.  The imagery is fresh and interesting.  Every word is deliberate.  Every character is nuanced and realistic.  The plot lines range from sappy and heartwarming to disgusting and horrifying.  Realistic fiction love stories are not usually my genre (I usually require some sort of thriller/sci-fi subplot to cut through the sap), but this book is incredibly well-written–and gets some bonus points for the very subtle Romeo and Juliet parallels (starting with the title).  I recommend it to teens and adults who like love stories and literary fiction.

If you liked Eleanor and Park, you might like Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler.

THE BOOK OF LIES by Mary Horlock

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The police think that Nicolette’s death was an accident—a drunken teenager wandering too close to the edge of the cliff.  They are wrong.  Cat killed her—a fact which still surprises Cat, to some extent.  It shouldn’t surprise her, though.  It was her fate as a Rozier.  Ever since the German occupation of their Guernsey Island home, Roziers have been falling into dangerous friendships with fatal consequences and covering it all up in blankets of lies.  But now Cat is ready to uncover the truth, both about Nic’s death and her Uncle Charlie’s experience with the Nazis.

This intriguing novel is part historical fiction, part mystery, and part angsty-and-self-destructive-rebellious-teen fiction.  Both the contemporary and historical plots keep you turning pages.  The novel is marketed for adults, although some teens will certainly enjoy it as well.  I would recommend this book to readers who are interested in WWII historical fiction and readers who like suspenseful stories about dysfunctional families/friendship drama.