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What makes families tick. Untangling relationships

NEGOTIATING the sometimes thorny tangles of relationships with family or friends can be difficult for young teens. An older brother may be impossible; a younger one a pest. Or perhaps parents don't seem to understand. And friends at school may do surprising, even disappointing, things. Learning to cope with others, to forgive, to love, are all a part of growing up. For almost-13-year-old Jessica Laird, the central character of Almost Home (Bradbury Press, New York, $12.95, 211 pp., ages 9 to 13), the prospect of spending the summer at her grandfather's house in Maine is almost more than she can bear. It's bad enough that she has to leave New York City - but she doesn't even know her grandfather. She feels rejected by her mother, who plans to use the summer to get started at law school. And of course, being cooped up on an island with her older brother, Lewis, is just added annoyance.

Author M.C. Helldorfer weaves all these undercurrents into a story of mystery and intrigue. Ships Light, the island where Jessica's grandfather lives, harbors a centuries-old secret of a pirate named Wishbone Jack. He's not the only mystery of the summer, though - there's also the odd but fascinating Carmen, an island girl who thinks she's a witch. There's also the puzzle of Jessica's mother's past - which Jess is able to piece together with her grandfather's help. Jess returns home at the end of the summer with a deepened sense of compassion for her mother as a result. There's adventure galore in this nicely written first novel - although the climax includes an objectionable attempted suicide.

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Tangled relationships is also the theme of One Friend to Another (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, $12.95, 186 pp., ages 9 to 13). Elizabeth Feuer's bouncy first-person narrative relates the tale of seventh-grader Nicole Aldrich, otherwise known as the Amazing Brain, who decides that her debut at a new school is the perfect time for her to trade in her stodgy image as class genius for that of a cooler, more glamorous self. Her target as a steppingstone in this transition: becoming friends with the most popular girl in the class. It's not an easy goal, though. ``If you took the most beautiful and stylish girl from every classroom in the whole United States of America, and put all of them together in one class, the girl they would want to be friends with would be Rhonda Winkler,'' Nicole tells the reader. From the hilarious awkwardness of a first date to the humiliation and anguish of a friend's betrayal, first-time novelist Feuer accurately captures the feel of contemporary junior high life.

Newbery medalist Betsy Byars's fourth (and final, she vows) installment in the Blossom family series, A Blossom Promise (Delacorte Press, New York, $13.95, 160 pp., ages 9 to 12), reunites fans with this rambunctious and original family. There are the usual humorous escapades, but it's also a testing time for all the Blossoms. Maggie is spending the summer on the rodeo circuit with her widowed mother and having a tough time coming to terms with her mother's budding friendship with a rodeo cowboy. Vern and Junior are home with their grandfather, Pap, involved in their usual scrapes, until tragedy strikes. How the Blossoms pull together, in their inimitable style, is a lesson in what it is that makes the best families tick. A fine finale to a fine series of books.

Heather Vogel Frederick is on the Monitor's staff.

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