Realistic Fiction

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.

INSANE CITY by Dave Barry

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Seth can’t believe he is marrying Tina.  More specifically, he can’t believe Tina wants to marry him, and he can’t believe that the wedding (the insane wedding that Tina’s family has been spending millions of hours and dollars planning) is in just two days.  As he arrives in Miami, all Seth wants is a nice, simple bachelor’s party—not too much booze, and definitely no strippers.  So how does he end up in a pimp’s car with a snake handler’s girlfriend and an angry orangutan trying to rescue some illegal Haitian immigrants from the clutches of his fiancé’s billionaire father’s thugs?  Well, it is Miami. . . .

The title pretty much says it all.  This is a reasonably suspenseful novel in which a whole lot of random, silly, absurd, unbelievable, insane things happen.  As is typical of Dave Barry’s writing, the novel is funny and definitely light.  I never got completely invested in it (it didn’t keep me turning pages the way many of Dave Barry’s books do).  But it was entertaining, and readers who like his style of comedy will certainly enjoy it.

WONDER by R.J. Palacio

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August is just an ordinary ten year old kid.  He likes Star Wars, playing with his dog, and eating ice cream.  The trouble is that no one else realizes how ordinary he is.  All they can see are the “craniofacial anamolies” that make his face look so different from everyone else’s.  Some people, like his sister Via, see him as a fragile person who needs protection and support.   Others see him as a freak to stare at or make fun of.  When August’s parents decide the time has come for him to go to a regular school, he knows that it will be the most challenging experience of his already trying life.

I hesitate to oversimplify Wonder by saying it is a book “about” bullying, but it is refreshing to read a story where bullying features prominently that is still incredibly uplifting and inspiring.  Perhaps that is why Wonder does not seem to be “about” bullying at all.  Instead it is about friendship, understanding, and the building of a community.  By sharing August’s first year at middle school from the point of view of August, his sister, and his classmates, Palacio subtly crafts a story of the transformation of an entire community.  We see the emotional journey of each character as they deal with the challenges of middle school and high school–some of which are related to August’s presence in their lives and others which are not.  Palacio shows us the balance in the Beecher Prep community; while August’s physical deformity creates challenges for him, classmates struggle with school, family, friendships, and relationships.  By the end of the novel, we come to understand that Auggie’s challenges, though unique, are not extraordinary.  As he says at the start, he is an ordinary kid, with human strengths and weaknesses, struggling to fit in–just like his classmates.  But the community of understanding, kindness, and hope that he and his friends and family build around him is truly a wonder.

The attention this novel is receiving is well deserved.  I highly recommend it to kids, teens, and grown ups!    If you liked Wonder, you might like Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper.

JUST ONE DAY by Gayle Forman

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Allyson’s parents sent her on the “Teen Tours!” whirlwind trip to Europe as a high school graduation gift.  They insisted that the experience would broaden her horizons and prepare her for her promising future career as a doctor.  But for Allyson, the trip is a bust.  She doesn’t enjoy traveling, and her childhood best friend Melanie, traveling with her, has “reinvented” herself in preparation for college, and Allyson isn’t sure she likes the new “Mel.”  But her prospects change drastically when Allyson meets Willem on the streets of Stratford-on-Avon.  There is something about the unconventional, amateur Shakespearean actor that intrigues her.  And when he invites her to play hooky in Paris for a day, she throws away her old identity as straight-laced Allyson, and begins the adventure of a lifetime.

I read a review recommending this book to people who like Shakespeare and teen fiction, but when I read the tagline on the back of the book, I almost didn’t read it (“She went looking for him and along the way she found herself…”—ugh!).  But I’m glad I did read it, because the tagline hardly does this good book justice.  The book is definitely about “finding yourself.”  Most of the characters are playing with their identities—which is nicely paralleled with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and As You Like It.  But in the context of starting college and struggling to build new friendships and relationships, I did not find Just One Day obnoxious the way I do most middle-aged-woman-goes-to-Europe-to-find-herself books.  In fact, it reminded me of John Green’s identity-focused YA novels.  The plot was moved forward by action; Allyson didn’t spend too much time ruminating without doing anything else—and she has a great sense of humor.  There were also many relationships in the book (friends, family) in addition to the romance focal point that helped flesh out Allyson’s character.  I would definitely recommend this book to teens and college students (or grown-ups who enjoy teen lit) who like realistic fiction and/or romance.  I’m looking forward to the sequel!

If you liked Just One Day, you might like Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska by John Green and The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson.