Meet the Walker family – a large California family whose trials and tribulates make for a superb television drama on Brothers and Sisters. The award winning cast includes Sally Field, Calista Flockhart and Rob Lowe as well as a handful of other well known actors. The series is funny, serious and heartbreaking all at the same time and is combined with smart and sophisticated writing. The fifth season of series will begin on television at the end of September and if you haven’t caught the series yet, it is a great time to check out Seasons One, Two, Three and Four, which are available on DVD and get to know the Walker family.

The family, which is made up of five vastly different siblings, own a fruit and vegetable company that was started by their father.  The series opening scene starts out with a large birthday celebration that ends tragically with the death of William Walker, the patriarch of the family.  This event sets forth a chain of events that serves as the setting for the entire series, including: their father’s secret life, a new sibling and the threat of losing the family business.  Many twists and turns throughout the series will make you believe you are part of the family!

The title of The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman is indicative of the book’s style. The cookbooks in question aren’t introduced until well into the story, and is just one of several plotlines. The book has been compared to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility but I get a Dicken’s vibe, myself. There is an abundance of characters; many of them quite eccentric. There is also a sense that, in this book and for these characters, morality is an actual consideration in how they conduct themselves and the choices they make.

Two sisters are contrasts in lifestyle and general philosophy. Jess, the younger sister, is a free spirit, environmentalist, and perennial student.  Emily is the CEO of a computer startup company (this being the late ’90’s and San Francisco).

Romantic tension abounds between Jess and her boss, the owner of a used and rare book store; they argue about everything –  books, authors and whether books should be collected and owned or shared (via the public library system!). The dialogue between these two is witty and erudite, but not pompous.

Book lovers, library users and patrons of book stores, will all find something in The Cookbook Collector to chew on.

Winter Solstice is a perfect book for a sweltering summer day.  Rosamund Pilcher does an amazing job of describing the quiet beauty of snow and the cold winter light. This is in contrast to the heartwarming style Pilcher is known for. Sometimes referred to as literary comfort food,the characters and the domestic settings are appealing  – people you’d like to know and places you’d like to live.

This is an unusual romance; a group of relative strangers who are all suffering in their own ways  end up together in an old house in Scotland. As they prepare to celebrate Christmas, they begin to heal and to care about each other.

Years ago, I enjoyed reading Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It was funny and quirky and self-revealing, with some darn good writing suggestions along the way.  Her new novel, Imperfect Birds, is a work of fiction, and thankfully so, as it’s characters ring painfully true.

As the story opens, seventeen year-old Rosie Ferguson is ready to enjoy the summer before her senior year of high school.  She’s smart –a straight-A student; she’s athletic – a former state-ranked doubles tennis champion;  she’s great with the kids at her volunteer job,  and she’s beautiful to boot!.   But Rosie also has a knack for driving her mother, Elizabeth, crazy.  She’s also quite adept at manipulating the truth and Mom seems more than willing to believe her lies. By the time school starts again in the fall, there are disturbing signs that is Rosie is not only abusing drugs, but that she is also making very dangerous choices, forcing her parents to finally confront the obvious.

As a parent myself (though thankfully no longer of teenagers) there were times when reading this  made me vaguely uncomfortable.  Had I, like Elizabeth, been too trusting when my son called to ask if he could spend the night at a friend’s?  Hmmmm.  Still, there’s a message here for both teens and adults, and the novel does end on a very hopeful note.  Readers will also note the familiarity of characters and themes from the author’s previous works, such as Rosie and A Crooked Little Heart.

They were just six days at the end of a miserably hot summer. Yet to 13-year-old Henry those six days will change everything about his life in Labor Day by Joyce Maynard.

For Henry, the days pass monotonously – his emotionally fragile mother Adele has mostly checked out of life, rarely leaving the house. His father has a new family on the other side of town. Henry, lonely and awkward, and at that stage when you know so much and yet so little, just wishes something would happen. And then, Frank, bleeding and limping, walks into their lives. Henry has no idea how different he will be in six days. He will learn how to bake a pie, how to throw a baseball, the pain of jealousy and betrayal, and the power of love. Those six days will shape him into the man he will become.

Frank is an escaped prisoner who has been serving time for murder who seeks sanctuary with Henry and his mother. He is kind and thoughtful and soon Adele and Frank fall in love. They make plans to escape together to Canada. Henry struggles with this new person in their lives – relief that he is no longer the only person responsible for his mother’s happiness, fear that he’ll be left behind.

Narrated by Henry as an adult looking back on those six days, you hear the angst of the teenager softened by the perspective of time. It is written with simplicity and eloquence and a sympathetic understanding of the emotional complexity of people. The extended epilogue –  particularly the last sentence – brings the story to an especially yet realistic satisfying conclusion.

What happens when that gang of friends you’ve run around with since your college days – your drinking buddies, your partners-in-mischief, your closest confidants – begin to grow up, pair off, start families? And you suddenly realize that, while you’re godmother to several charming children that you love dearly, the prospect of having your own children still seems distant, maybe even unreachable? These are some of  the questions that Tessa King must wrestle with in The Godmother, a look at growing up that is by turns poignant, funny, dark and heartwarming.

Tessa seems to have it all – youth, beauty, fabulous friends. Everything except a family of her own. After a crisis at work she takes a closer look at her life choices and those of her friends and realizes that seemingly perfect arrangements are often cracking under stress, that the fairy tale doesn’t always come true and that hard choices have to be made. Tackling infertility, difficult teenage children, single-parenthood and infidelity,  The Godmother doesn’t sugarcoat modern life, but it also celebrates the joys – friendship, family, love.

Set in an urbane, modern London, this book brims with both sophistication and warmth; Tessa and her friends are funny and smart and sharply observant of the world around them. They also genuinely care for each other, just as you’ll soon care about each of them.

Then you may very well enjoy Lisa Lutz’s series about the nutty, but lovable Spellman family. Unfortunately, there are only four books in this series.

The Spellman Files introduces us to Isabel, the narrator, her incorrigible younger sister Rae, her parents, or “the Units” as she calls them, who run the family business. Because that is a private investigation firm, they spend much of their free time spying on each other – literally making secret tape recordings.

The series is written in the style of reports for a client, complete with footnotes,  (Isabel calls each book a “document.”)

Isabel, like Stephanie, has many personal issues. Rather than eating too much junk food, Isabel drinks too much. She has a hard time with commitment and, though she loves her family,  they also drive  her nuts.

She has a cast of eccentric friends that recur in each book. Petra, a hair stylist and Isabel’s best friend from high school, Morty, an octogenarian lawyer who tries to keep Isabel out of jail, and Henry Stone, a police detective, though normal himself, albeit exceptionally neat and healthy, gets ensnared by the Spellmans.

As will you,the reader….

In Velva Jean Learns to Drive, ten-year-old Velva Jean dreams of someday singing at the Grand Ole Opry.  Her plans change suddenly, though, when her daddy disappears on one of his frequent adventures and her mama falls ill and dies.  This leaves her and her brother, Johnny Clay, in the care of a resentful older sister, with plenty of time on their hands for mischief.  As soon as she turns 16, Velva Jean marries the charismatic evangelist, the Rev. Harley Bright, a moonshiner’s son and former fellow mischief-maker.  All this takes place in the beautiful Appalachians in North Carolina during the 1930’s, just as the Civilian Conservation Corps is carving out the Blue Ridge Parkway right through their mountainous backyard.  At a time when most of her friends and neighbors had never even seen an automobile, Velva Jean somehow finds the strength to defy the social expectations of the day and follow her own dreams.

The author, Jennifer Niven, brings an authenticity to Velva Jean’s voice.  Her own grandparents, the McJunkin’s, grew up near Asheville, and the summers she spent visiting them. plus her own research into her family’s history, seem to have paid off with this delightful coming-of-age novel.

Emily Shelby has never met her grandfather, but after her mother dies unexpectedly she has nowhere else to go. Returning to the small North Carolina town that her mother fled as a teenager, Emily discovers that the past is still very much alive, that Mullaby NC is a town that is both ordinary and magical and that family ties can strangle you or free you.

Filled with vibrant characters and a sprinkling of magical realism, The Girl Who Chased the Moon follows Emily’s quest to learn more about her mother and to fit into her new home. Her grandfather Vance is, literally, a giant, so tall he can “see into tomorrow”. The wallpaper in her bedroom changes according to her mood – lilacs when she’s calm, colorful, fluttering butterflies when she’s worried – and a mysterious bright light moves through the garden at night. Her neighbor Julia, who has her own painful secrets in Mullaby’s past, bakes cakes, trying to summon what she once lost.

Throughout, the characters must learn to make peace with the past, accept how it’s shaped them into the people they’ve become, and move on to the future. That this future holds so much more than they imagined – or thought they wanted – is part of the magic of this book.

south of broadI couldn’t wait to read South of Broad — Pat Conroy hasn’t written a novel in 14 years  — though he did write a memoir (My Losing Season) and a cookbook.   I was also curious about the Charleston, South Carolina connection.  In Charleston, south of Broad Street (S.O.B.) is teasingly differentiated from slightly north of Broad (SNOB) in reference to the upscale residents there.  None of the reviewers seemed to catch this obvious pun.  At any rate, I do have to agree with reviewer Chris Bohjalian, who stated, “Even though I felt stage-managed by Conroy’s heavy hand, I still turned the pages with relish.”  That’s how I felt, too.  The book definitely kept my interest but there were details that irritated me.  I questioned the likelihood of all those high school sweethearts actually marrying.  I was kept worrying about his brother’s suicide until the very end.  I found some of the dialogue forced.

Still — I’d rather have you form your own opinion, so here’s a short synopsis of the plot.  The book begins in the summer of 1969, just as the main character (Leopold Bloom King — yes, named after the character in Joyce’s Ulysses) is about to enter his senior year in high school.  After a miserable childhood, marked primarily by the unexpected suicide of his golden-boy brother, Leo becomes friends with an unlikely group which includes orphans, blacks, members of the socially elite and charismatic twins, Trevor and Sheba Poe.  Fast forward twenty years — Sheba is now a famous movie star and Trevor is wasting away with AIDS.  Sheba recruits this same group — still best friends — to find Trevor in San Francisco and bring him back home to Charleston.

In my opinion, this is not Conroy’s best work, but it’s one that many will still enjoy reading.