Family Relationships



There are times when everything in life seems just as clear as... mud. That’s doubly true if you happen to spend lots of time scrounging the Mississippi River, which is exactly what the characters in the latest from Jeff Nichols (director of 2011’s shamefully overlooked Take Shelter) do to get by. Centering on Ellis and Neckbone, two early-teens swamp rats who befriend a fugitive hiding out near their fishing spot, Read more »

The Rosies Are Ready for Some Football

ImageAugust means back to school, the first touch of a chill in the morning air, and football, of course! This year, three of the Rosie Award nominees are about or related to football – in very special and different ways. Geoff Herbach's novel Stupid Fast is set in the exciting and bewildering world of high school football, where Felton Reinstein has gone from being a bullied failure of a stand-up comedian to a seriously fast, seriously gigantic football player in his sophomore year. There's a decent amount of football action (including off-season training) and a bit of romance, but Herbach's strong point is how he balances a story about a neglectful mother with Felton's often hilarious struggles to control his newly grown-up body and the popularity it brings. Fans of Carl Deuker or Paul Volponi's sports novels will enjoy this one. Read more »

Wedding Complications


In Seating Arrangments, Winn Van Meter and his family descend upon the family’s summer retreat house on the New England island of Waskeke. His pregnant daughter Daphne is about to tie the knot. Biddy, her mother, is deeply involved in final wedding preparations, and Winn finds himself strongly drawn to one of the bridesmaids, Agatha. Meanwhile, Daphne’s sister, Livia, who just terminated her own pregnancy, is trying hard to get over a big breakup with Teddy Finn. And to her father’s horror, Livia plans to become a marine biologist rather than a lawyer. 

This lovely, slyly humorous novel is brimming with very believable and flawed characters; it captures the insanity, tension, and chaos of a modern wedding.

Winn, an upper-crust, stoic accountant likes things just so.  Imagine his consternation when he arrives a day late for the weekend party to find his spiritual retreat taken over by women: his wife and two daughters, three other bridesmaids, and the alcoholic Aunt Celeste, who sees right through Winn’s holier than thou exterior to his traitorous heart. During one pre-wedding party with the new in-laws, she follows him up to the widow’s walk and warns him, not to ruin Biddy’s weekend. Read more »

The Perfect Family Until--


When this compelling novel starts, Mary Beth Lathem’s biggest problem is taking sass from her truculent teenaged daughter, Ruby. The narrative starts at the beginning of Mary Beth’s busy day as she goes through the house waking up her three children, the eldest daughter and two twins, Alex and Max. Mary Beth owns a landscape business but soon you can tell that her family is the center of her life and passions. 

Alex is a soccer jock, immensely talented and popular while Max, his fraternal twin, is a computer nerd with social anxiety problems.  Glen, Mary Beth’s husband, is an extremely practical and thoroughly unromantic eye doctor--solid as hardwood--though Mary Beth is not necessarily aware of that. Read more »

Bad Parent, Good Child


I picked up Richard Russo's latest book with some hesitation. I knew Elsewhere was a memoir about his relationship with his mother, but I remembered that in his last novel, That Old Cape Magic, he had created a decidedly crazy "mother" character. But as is so often the case with memoirs, the first sentence hooked me.

Because he was an only child and his parents separated when he was very young, Russo and his mom shared an extremely close relationship. In the 50s she had a job for General Electric, dated engineers, and dressed elegantly. Her independence was extremely important to her, but it took Richard years to understand that she depended on her parents bail-outs to survive. It didn't help that Russo's dad contributed almost nothing to the household or that women were paid poor wages.

This book is also an exploration of a place - the town of Gloversville where Russo grew up and which he's fictionalized in his novels. It was a town built on making gloves; in fact, his grandparents did this. It was hard, polluting work and when the government cracked down on water pollution, the whole operation moved overseas. But in small-town Gloversville surrounded by relatives, Russo felt secure and loved. Read more »



I think there are very few of us who haven't at one time or another dreamed of being a superhero. The chance to fly, manipulate objects with our minds and be nearly invulnerable would be wonderful. I'm sure we'd all like to think that we would be noble and use our power for good. Chronicle is the record of three teenage boys who after encountering a strange object underground begin to develop special powers. They start slowly at first but over time their powers develop. Having such new powers invites mistakes, accidents, and failures. Read more »

Where'd You Go, Bernadette


TED talks, "pay yourself in chard", shoeless Microsoft techies, Molly Moon ice cream--you don't have to be a current or ex-Seattleite to enjoy this funny book by Hollywood scriptwriter (Arrested Development) Maria Semple. If you've ever lived in a politically correct zone (Bloomington anyone?), you'll recognize many of the interpersonal dynamics pictured here. Where'd You Go, Bernadette tells the story of a family - Bernadette, Bee, and Elgin Branch-- and their relationship to their child's school community.

Bernadette, a former architect and MacArthur genius award winner, has given up working on any creative projects to devote herself to her family. Her daughter Bee was born with a serious heart condition and for years Bernadette felt that she could not commit herself to any new designs due to her daughter's condition. But Bernadette, a woman full of prodigious talent and energy, has been driving herself and everyone around her nuts while her husband worked his way up the Microsoft hierarchy.

Minor Seattle annoyances set her off, say five-way traffic interchanges where one waits an eon for a turn at the green light. Too friendly Canadians provoke Bernadette's ire also. And turning her almost ballistic are messages from her daughter's private school that ask for volunteers. She ignores these but the fellow parents, whom she calls "gnats", mock her for her lack of community involvement--a major Seattle lapse. And then there are all those obnoxious Microsoft slogans that she must turn away from whenever she and Bee visit her husband's office. Read more »

Mahjong, Soybeans, and Sisters: Growing Up Chinese in Indiana


I'm a bit biased about how wonderful Auntie Yang's Great Soybean Picnic and Mahjong All Day Long are. Full disclosure: I'm from Illinois and I've lived in Indiana. And I'm moving to China in a month! (And I have 2 awesome sisters!) So, they're the perfect books for me, but they might just be great for you too. They are such a sweet celebration of  family traditions, so culturally specific and yet so universally heartwarming, that I can't help but want to share them with everyone I know! So let's travel from place to place, book by book.

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The Man on the Third Floor



I journeyed back into the 1950s with this novel about a closeted gay editor. It's all here: the strong prejudice against homosexuality, the gender stereotyping, the cold war, the loyalty oaths, friend turning against friend and colleague against colleague. Some accused Communists leap out high-rise windows when their livelihoods are destroyed.

But McCarthyism is just a side issue in this intriguing novel - The Man on the Third Floor centers on a very successful editor who has a secret domestic life. When he and his wife, Phyllis, and their two young children move back to New York after the World War II years in Washington, Phyllis decides they can afford a house of their own. They finds a nice brownstone with three floors, the top of which was originally servant quarters. But Phyllis is a modern woman, college-educated who worked in radio and journalism until she had children, and she's not keen on having servants live with them. 

But one day, a very handsome man comes to measure Walter's office for new carpeting.  Although Walter has had only one sexual experience with another male in his life--he was raped at camp as a teenager--he immediately finds himself inviting Barry, the carpet man, to a bar. Almost immediately, he offers him a job as a driver despite the fact the family owns no car, and soon gives him a room on their third floor. For some reason, Phyllis agrees to both ideas. Read more »

Acid, Projects, and Pit Bulls: Fiction by Paul Griffin

ImageThere are plenty of Young Adult books that portray the difficulties of being a teenager. Some are funny, some serious, and some are pretty dark. There's even a name for ones that focus on a specific issue -- the problem novel (you've got your teen pregnancy, drug abuse, suicide -- you name it). Some are great, but often times the more one topic takes center stage, the less realistic these books seem. It's never just one problem in real life, is it? For pretty much anyone at this age, times are hard all around. Paul Griffin writes about hard times. Read more »

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