Patrick O’Hara, a former sitcom star, leaves Palm Springs for Connecticut when his good friend and sister-in-law dies of cancer. Unexpectedly, Patrick’s brother Greg asks him to look after his kids for the summer. Back in Palm Springs, where the kids are delighted he has a swimming pool, Gay Uncle Patrick, aka GUP or Guncle, makes several rules to help Maisie, 9, and Grant, 6, settle in. With help from part-time housekeeper Rosa, Patrick and kids deal with their grief, have lots of fun, and Patrick gradually figures out what the next chapter in life will look like. Poignant, with some hilarious dialogue, this is a memorable and charming novel. Maisie, Grant, and Patrick just might steal your heart. Readalikes include The Family Man by Elinor Lipman and Less by Andrew Sean Greer
This is the most unusual book I’ve read this year, and one of the most memorable. Lillian Breaker, 28, works at two grocery stores and smokes pot in her indifferent mother’s attic. She has some college credits, but is definitely an underachiever. In her teens, Lillian won a scholarship to a nearby boarding school, and became friends with wealthy, beautiful Madison. Then Madison screwed up and let Lillian take the blame; they’ve kept in touch with letters ever since (this book is set about 20 years ago). Now Madison is offering Lillian a summer job as a nanny to her stepkids in Tennessee, but of course, there’s a catch.
Bessie and Roland, 10, have recently lost their mother and have been spoiled by their grandparents. Not surprising, as when the twins get upset, they often burst into flame. They’re completely unharmed, but their clothes and anything around them are toast. Lillian has no experience with kids, but is willing to try and the trio spend time in the pool, and eat lots of junk food. Then Lillian teaches Bessie and Roland to play basketball, arranges a visit to the local library, and they practice some calming techniques. The children’s father is a politician who’s being considered for a cabinet post; flaming children would not help his chances. Whimsical, touching, funny, and full of heart, this is a beautifully written novel about a misfit who finds her tribe and will go to great lengths to protect them.
This is an excellent debut memoir about a single mother struggling to provide for her young daughter, while dreaming of college in Missoula, Montana, and of becoming a writer. I think Stephanie is an amazing writer with a story that needed to be told. Readers will root for Stephanie and her young daughter Mia and cheer when they find a better apartment and finally visit Montana. Stephanie shares the insights gained by cleaning a variety of houses; a loving home in a studio apartment trumps a gorgeous house with a view. There is suspense when a car accident comes close to disaster for Mia and Stephanie, even without an injury. Deservedly popular, this is a candid look at a mother’s love for her daughter and how hard she works for their future, especially when the possibility of a grant or a tax refund helps her look beyond the end of a month. Readalikes include A Broom of One’s Own by Nancy Peacock and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. For more of Stephanie’s writings and story, visit her website.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about Molly and her young daughter Bridget, who move from Phoenix to rural Alberta, Canada when Molly inherits a farm from her great aunt. Molly has just been laid off from her accounting job during the recent recession, and worries about four-year-old Bridget, who is extremely shy. The inheritance is contingent on Molly living on the farm for a year, including the long cold winter. Molly’s aunt left a journal about her life on the farm in 1924, as well as old photos, a cookbook, and other keepsakes. Molly and Bridget learn to live off the grid in the old farm house with a wood stove and a pump on the kitchen sink, driving a truck into town monthly to shop and use the internet. In the past, Mary Margaret and her husband are homesteaders, living in a large foursquare house built from a catalogue kit. There is a wonderful sense of place and very likable characters, although a romantic subplot isn’t well-developed. The author’s website has numerous photos that inspired the book, which is suggested for readers who enjoy character-focused novels or fiction set in rural North America. Enjoy!
A contemporary novel about a family with five boys in Madison, Wisconsin facing a challenge when young Claude wants to wear dresses and sparkly barrettes. Rosie, an emergency room physician and Penn, a writer, agree that Claude can dress however he wants on vacation. But when Claude says her name is Poppy and wants to start kindergarten in a dress, the family worries about the consequences. When they relocate to Seattle, Rosie and Penn don’t know how and when to share that Poppy used to be Claude. Eventually the secret is revealed, and Rosie takes her youngest child to a rural clinic in Thailand for a time-out. Charming, compassionate, messy, and thought-provoking, the Walsh-Adams family reminds me of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks and Hilary McKay’s Casson family (Saffy’s Angel), although these large families have different challenges. The Tuesday Evening Book Group will be discussing Frankel’s book this spring.
This is an absorbing novel about two very different families in the planned community of Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. Set in 1998, the Richardsons and their four children seem to have everything, but it’s their house in flames as the book opens, with one of their children suspected of arson. 11 months earlier, Elena Richardson rented a small house to artist Mia and her teen daughter Pearl. Mia and Pearl are used to moving frequently, fitting all their belongings in a VW Rabbit, buying clothes and furniture at thrift stores. Izzy Richardson spends time with Mia, wanting to learn how she makes her unusual photographs. Pearl is befriended by Moody Richardson, and is fascinated by his older siblings, Lexie and Trip. Full of secrets gradually revealed, this is a story about mothers and daughters, and different paths to motherhood. Adoption, surrogacy, unwanted pregnancy, and premature birth are all covered here. Reporter Elena’s friend is hoping to adopt an abandoned Chinese American baby, whose birth mother works with Mia at a Chinese restaurant. Everything is connected, and the author gradually peels back the layers of the characters, dazzling and sometimes stunning the reader. Deservedly popular, this is a memorable and compelling read.
Frances Bloom is the neighborhood carpool mom, and fits seven kids in her van every weekday morning. Then she has a couple of hours before picking up two preschoolers, usually spent running errands or doing laundry. Michael and Frances have three kids, ages 4 to 14, along with two dogs and a cat, and don’t get much alone time. Retrieving craft supplies for first-grader Kate, she learns that her neighbor Anne is having an affair. Anne ends the affair, but her husband finds out and causes a scene that has the whole neighborhood on edge. Different points of view introduce the neighbors, and even Ava, at 14 the oldest kid on the block, gets her turn, as does her brother Milo. Witty dialogue and some humor, especially at soccer games, make for a quick read, but I found this book not quite as enjoyable as her first book, The Garden of Small Beginnings.
I wasn’t sure if I was the right audience for this book, as I’m not contemplating homeschooling, or unschooling, children. But I still found it fascinating, as an account of a homesteading family, a unique look at parenting, and a chronicle of the life of a writer.
Ben and his wife Penny buy land in Vermont, surrounded by dairy farms, build a small cabin, later add a basement and an addition, and welcome two boys into their life. Ben writes magazine articles and non-fiction books, and the family runs a small farm. The boys are self-directed learners, not following a set curriculum, and are very creative and productive, more interested in exploring the woods, raising dairy goats, and learning wilderness skills than in sitting down and reading textbooks. Yes, the boys are learning basic academic skills including science and history, but only when it’s connected to one of their interests. Finn and Rye also have daily and weekly chores on the farm, weekly music lessons and occasional tutors to learn particular craft and wilderness skills. Since this book was published in early September and has been publicized on public radio and elsewhere, the Hewitts are getting many questions about how to encourage creativity in children and also comments criticizing the boys’ non-standardized education. This is an absorbing read in how some children learn when they are free to explore their interests. For more about the Hewitts, check out Ben’s blog.