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Dramatic family relationships make interesting stories

There's nothing quite like seeing your relatives during the busy holiday season to make you think about family relationships. This Christmas, in particular, reminded me of how lucky I am to have a great family.

I actually look forward to spending time with my mom, dad, sister, grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins every year. In fact, most of my family members are also my friends.

As I have gotten older, I have realized that not everyone enjoys seeing their families as much as I do. I think that's really too bad.

However, dramatic family relationships do make for good storytelling, both in real life and in fiction. I found the family dynamics in "The Ruins of California" by Martha Sherrill (Riverhead Books, $14) particularly interesting.

The book is narrated by Inez, a young girl who lives in southern California with her mother and grandmother. Her parents are divorced and Inez often visits her father in San Francisco.

"The Ruins of California" opens in 1969 and follows Inez and her family through 1980. In that time, Inez becomes close to her half-brother Whitman and gets to know her other grandmother.

Out of all Inez's relatives, though, her father is definitely the most memorable character. He's smart, entertaining and a bit odd. While he's been divorced twice and seems reluctant to make another commitment, he still seems like a devoted dad - just not quite like any other dad I've known.

"The Big Shuffle" by Laura Pedersen (Ballantine Books, $13.95) presented a completely different view of family life. As the novel opens, Hallie Palmer, a college student, finds out her father had a fatal heart attack. Her mom had a nervous breakdown and ends up staying in the hospital.

There's no one but Hallie who can take care of her eight younger brothers and sisters, which include two-month-old twins, so she moves back home. Her schedule soon includes nothing but constant child care and housekeeping.

This chaotic story was sometimes hard to follow. Keeping the eight kids straight was particularly difficult for me. Still, I liked the family, even though I wanted Hallie to be able to leave them and go back to college as soon as possible.

While reading "The Big Shuffle," I sometimes felt like I was missing part of the story. It wasn't until after I finished the book that I found out that Pedersen had written previous novels about Hallie. I think I would have enjoyed "The Big Shuffle" more if I had read those other books.

I don't see myself making time to read Pedersen's other work in the near future, though. After all, I have plenty of New Year's resolutions to concentrate on. Also, I wouldn't mind hanging out with my own family a little more. I'd especially like to see my cousin Katie - she has a lot of books I'd like to borrow.

If there's a book you think I really ought to read, please e-mail rachael.mason@gwinnettdailypost.com.