Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Middle-Grade Review: My So-Called Family

Courtney Sheinmel’s middle-grade novel, My So-Called Family, is definitely a 21st-century type of story, about a girl who has a donor instead of a dad.  It’s a well-written book that takes a look at the meaning of family.

Thirteen-year old Leah Hoffman-Ross never really had a father; her mother chose a donor from a reproductive agency and had a baby on her own.  Although her mom is open about it and Leah now has a wonderful stepfather and brother whom she love, she still feels uncomfortable with her origins.  When they move to New York and Leah starts a new school, she feels like she has to keep the truth a secret from her new friends.  Here, one of them asks about her hyphenated last name:

“Oh, yeah.  Ross is my stepfather’s last name,” I said.  “He and my mom got married six years ago.”  I didn’t tell her Hoffman was my mother’s maiden name.  She could just assume the Hoffman part came from my biological father.  I could be like thousands of kids with a father and a stepfather.  That was my plan anyway.

“My mom’s remarried, too,” Callie said.  “I practically know my stepfather better than my real father.  Does your dad live nearby at least?”

“Oh, no.  He’s off in Europe somewhere,” I said, reciting the familiar line I usually told about my family.  “I’m not exactly sure where.”

Then, Leah finds an online Sibling Registry hosted by the reproductive agency her mom used and discovers she has siblings who were also fathered by Donor 730.  She feels compelled to meet these previously unknown brothers and sisters but isn’t sure what her mother will think.

It’s an interesting story.  Although the premise may not be something most kids can relate to, Leah’s struggles will be familiar to all adolescents – feelings of embarrassment over aspects of her family, wanting to fit in and just be a “normal” kid, and straddling the line between childhood and growing up.  It’s a well-written story with realistic, likeable characters and a thought-provoking plot.

194 pages, Simon & Schuster

For more information on this and other novels, visit the author’s website


Monday, June 6, 2011

It's Monday 6/6! What Are You Reading?

Happy Monday!

The past week passed by in a blur - I'm still very sick and was unable to do much of anything all week, so I apologize for not being able to get around and visit blogs like I usually do (or post much on my own blogs).  I'm hoping to start improving this week, but then I'll be very busy preparing for our upcoming vacation and getting to all the kids' last-week-of-school events.  Busy time of year!

Well, the one good thing about being this sick is having lots of reading time:
  • I finished reading The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon, a local author here in Delaware.  I loved her two memoirs, Riding the Bus with My Sister and Building a Home with my Husband, and her new novel is absolutely wonderful.  It tells the story of the love between a deaf man and a mentally handicapped woman, both institutionalized in the 1950's.  It's a beautiful story, beautifully written, and I do hope to find time to write this review this week.
  • Since I've read very few kids and teen books this past month (see my May summary), I decided to focus on those for a while.  I read a middle-grade novel, My So-Called Family by CourtneySheinmel, about a girl with a very 21st-century problem.  Leah doesn't have a father; she has a donor.  And despite having a loving mother and step-father and an adorable step-brother she loves very much, Leah still feels like something is missing from her life.  I enjoyed the novel.
  • Now I'm reading a teen/YA novel, Deadly: How do you catch an invisible killer? by Julie Chibbaro.  It's a fascinating novel based on the real-life story of Typhoid Mary.  In the novel, sixteen-year old Prudence lives in NYC in 1906 and is interested in science - not a popular or acceptable choice for girls of that time.  She gets a job as an assistant at the Department of Health and Sanitation, helping her boss track down the cause of a typhoid epidemic.  It's well-written and absorbing.
  • Ken finished Num8ers by Rachel Ward, a teen/YA thriller that I enjoyed, then moved onto its sequel The Chaos.  He says he enjoyed the series very much.
  • Jamie, 16, was also quite sick all week, plus was busy trying to finish his schoolwork.  He has three exams this week and then he is free for the summer!  He is still re-reading the Redwall series by Brian Jacques but has filled a carton with books he wants to read on vacation!  I'm going to ship it out to California ahead of time for him (plus a few for me!).
In addition to my May summary, I did manage to post one new review last week, of the teen/YA novel The Deathday Letter by Shaun David Hutchinson,  a darkly humorous look at the meaning of life and death.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Teen/YA Review: The Deathday Letter

The Deathday Letter by Shaun David Hutchinson is a teen/YA novel with more depth and warmth  than first appears.  It grew on me the longer I read, and, as I finished it, I was surprised to realize that I had actually liked it quite a bit.

The premise of the book is quite simple: it’s a society where people receive a Deathday Letter the day before they will die.  Fifteen-year old Ollie receives his Deathday Letter at the start of the novel and has only 24 hours left to live.  He wants to make the best of his last day.

I expected the novel to delve deeper into the concept of the Deathday Letter itself – why this happens, how it happens – but it didn’t.  It just assumed this was the way things were and moved onto Ollie’s own story, which turned out to be just fine with me.

Since the novel is told from the point of view of a teenage boy, it is filled with all sorts of lewd observations and actions – sex, drugs, and roll ‘n roll, right?  At first, this nonstop barrage of jokes and sex talk was irritating to me, but then it occurred to me that maybe this is really how a teen boy would react to his impending death, covering his real feelings with humor.  Here, he has just told his best friend about his letter:

Shane claps me on the back.  “Listen, I’ve known you since you were a baby, man.  You’re like a brother.  I know everything there is to know about you, and lots of stuff I wish I didn’t.  It’s not just my job to tell you the truth, it’s my obligation.”

We stand in silence until finally I say, “What do we do about my letter?” because standing around not talking about our feelings feels way gayer than actually talking about our feelings.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not going back to class.  I already know how the war ends.  We won.  And I don’t want to stand around and cry about my letter.”

So, Ollie and Shane skip school and bring along Ronnie, their childhood friend and Ollie’s recent girlfriend (who broke up with him).  They embark on the kinds of things you would expect teenagers with nothing to lose to embark on.  Filled with dark humor, The Deathday Letter explores life and death, love and sex, and the meaning of friendship.  Though crude at times, the novel redeems itself with a tender, thoughtful, and thought-provoking ending.  I’m glad I read it.

240 pages, Simon Pulse

For more information, check out the author's website and blog