Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review: Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

Review: Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson
Published by: Scholastic Press, an Imprint of Scholastic Inc, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-545-11674-9
Reading Level: Grades 5 and up

 I am a Newfoundlander. My grandfather on my mothers side was a sea captain and lived through at least one shipwreck. To leave my island you must take a boat or a plane - or swim, I guess! The Titanic has always been part of our consciousness - when I was a child we sang a campfire song about how "They built the ship Titanic just to sail the ocean blue" (full lyrics here). Even when I didn't know what it was, I knew of it. I knew of the perils of the sea and the majestic danger of ice burgs. I have gotten sunburned walking around the graveyard in Halifax looking for Titanic graves, I have spent time in exhibits in local museums looking at artifacts from the Titanic and replicas of items that might have been used. I even followed the live twitter feed last year as they tweeted as if it was real time and the ship was sinking. I have an interest in the subject matter - not necessarly a great knowledge but an interest, much of which was naturally obtained by my location and personal history.

This particular look at the Titanic is nicely done. Hopkinson takes the reader from the first short voyage with passengers, from London to Queenstown and then for it's final fatal voyage from Queenstown and onwards. Throughout the entire book there are pictures of life aboard the Titanic - some taken by passengers who were part of the first short voyage, others taken on ships with similar offerings as the Titanic. There are also copies of items such as work orders, menus, distress telegrams and other such print items to further illustrate the historical importance of the events contained within. 

At times this book gets a little unclear as it jumps around from survivor to survivor. However, the clarity in which it describes the fatal voyage, while staying true to the young reading level makes up for any occasional lack of focus. The pictures will please readers who.want to see the historical items but are also a great addition when trying to "sell" this book to a reluctant reader.

I give this book a 4/5.

Goodreads Page

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review: Wondershow by Hannah Barnaby

    Review: Wondershow by Hannah Barnaby
    Published by: Houghten Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012
    ISBN: 978-0-547-59980-9
    Reading Level: Grades 9 and up
Sometimes it's the little things about a book. Things which have nothing to do with the story. With this book, it was the dedication. It states:

    For the lost and the lonely
    For the different and the same
The longing and the beauty conveyed in these two lines made me realize I was in for a treat of a book. I was not disappointed.
To explain the plot of this story gets complicated and detailed. On the one hand, it's a story of a girl in search of her family who joins a circus, telling stories as a "normal" and finds her true family. On the other hand, this is the story of Portia, set in the United States during the 1930s. Portia is our main character - a young girl in search of her family. Portia has always had a way with stories. Her father was her constant audience; her mother was "lean and restless" and departed, leaving a space which was quickly closed and was never spoken of again. Her father and his moods controlled the stories Portia told and through that, as a young child she learned the art of storytelling, the difference between a lie and a tale and how a family can fly away. A visit to the circus was quickly followed by the disappearance of her father, leaving the two mixed in Portias mind: her father must have left to follow the circus. Portia is left with her Aunt, a no nonsense woman who taught Portia to cook and sew and who eventually decided that she was unable to care for Portia as she should be cared for. Portia is left in McGreavey's Home for Wayward Girls with the Mister, a man who uses the home as a front to get cheap labour - the girls are put to work sewing mail order uniforms or picking apples. Portia quickly becomes friends with Caroline, a girl who has caught the eye of Mister. She becomes one of the house girls, who, with Caroline and Delilah the cook, take care of the main home where Mister lives. It is there she finds the files and knows that Mister knows where her father is - she just has to earn his trust enough to be able to access it. When tragedy strikes, Portia leaves and finds the circus, hoping she can find her father, or, failing that, employment. Through the strength of her storytelling skills she finds a place as a "normal' in the Mosco's Traveling Wonder Show and it is there she discovers what family truly means.
So... big set up for a fairly pat plot - discovering family, discovering self, discovering what a freak means vs what a normal means, finding out who the true monsters are in the world. However, all of this is boiled into beautiful prose where the reader is able to watch Portia develop from a headstrong young girl into a woman who is secure in her family and her future. As well, it gives a glimpse into the world of the traveling 'freak' show - shows popular in the 1930s. Through this novel the reader gets a glimpse into part of the world of the 30s. Barnaby creates a set of characters that the reader wants to learn more about and of whom the reader will form definite opinions. Beautifully told, a little different and smart - a fantastic novel.
I give this book a 5/5
Goodreads page

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review: Steve Jobs: The Man who Thought Different by Karen Blumenthal

    Review: Steve Jobs: The Man who Thought Different by Karen Blumenthal

    Published by: R.R. Donnelley and Sons Company, 2012

    ISBN: 978-1-250-01445-0

    Reading Level: Grades 9 and up

I am not really an Apple person. There, I said it. I am awaiting my iPad for the library but admit that part of the reason it was purchased was because that's what is being used by the board, not because that's what I really wanted. Yes it does really cool things but, I guess, I've never been able to buy into the whole 'Apple is God' way of thinking. However, many many many people are into the Apple is all thinking - and many of the things that I enjoy using were impacted by Apple, so even if I don't have Apple products, I still have Apple to thank for a number of the things that I use everyday.
Perhaps some of my lack of passion about Apple comes from my dislike of Steve Jobs. There - an even bigger admittance from me. I'm not a huge fan of Steve Jobs. In works that I've viewed and bios I've encountered, he just seems like not a great guy. Give me The Woz any time, with his sense of humour and appreciation for others. Or even Bill Gates with his dedication to charity and giving away his money. That is if I have to choose. Steve Jobs photographs like he cares but really, the more I learn the less I like him.
So, I approached this bio with a bias. Jobs and his drive to be the best and lack of appreciation for others has been well documented. From early life with his adopted family and his issues in school to his later life with his wife and children and his company, this bio tells the good and bad about Jobs and does so in a clear and concise way. The story of Steve Jobs is a complicated one - you want to admire the man for what he brought to modern technology and yet, so often, learning the truth of his life, his attitudes and his behaviours, it's hard to like him. His abandoning of his first child, his behaviours to his employees, his refusal to contribute to charity, his inability to realize that his choices impact others - all of these things make him appear to be a pretty crappy guy. The good things he has done - helping the world modernize, helping others become financially solvent through their work in the company, his reach for perfection in the products he delivered to his customers - sometimes pale in comparison. How would his first daughter have felt, knowing her dad named a computer after her even though he didn't want to be part of his life? How would business partners feel knowing that he shared what he wanted to share - even financially? After almost any bio I have read or watched about Steve Jobs I am struck with the idea that he wasn't such a great guy. I remarked to my mom after reading this that I knew it was a YA bio of him - I left feeling he was a jerk as opposed to any stronger word I might have used after a non-ya bio!
Despite the flaws of the subject, Blumenthal has created a great profile. Students who are wondering from what brain their apple products emerged will be able to read about one of the people who helped make them happen and do so in an accessible and well written format. She has plenty of pullaway information boxes but puts them at the end of chapters so that the reader is not drawn away from the narrative of her biography. She presents testimony and stories from a number of people who were in the life of Jobs to help develop her story, which aids in trying to understand what kind of man Steve Jobs was.
I gave this book a 4/5.
Goodreads Page.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

    Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

    Published by:Balzar + Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, in 2012

    ISBN: 978-0-06-202056-7

    Reading Level: Grades 9 and up

I was a teen of the 90's. The grunge scruffiness, the bands trying to make a mark, the general questioning of the age. Who am I and why did I used to wear florescent shirts and all that jazz. Reading a book set in that era was nice, especially one that wasn't focused on the popular culture of the times but instead the living in the culture of those times. It felt familiar.
The subject matter was less personal but was still familiar. The story of a girl trying to find her place and her self during her teen years in the 90s sounds like the story of my life. Less like my life was the life of Cameron Post. Her parents die suddenly in a car crash and she's relieved - relieved they will never find out that she was kissing a girl at the time of their crash. Once she is orphaned, Cameron has to live with her well intentioned but old fashioned Grandmother and her very conservative and Christian aunt Ruth. She knows her home life will never be the same and knows that to fit in in her small town she's going to have to lay low and blend in, no matter what inner angst she is feeling. Then, SHE moves to town - beautiful cowgirl Coley Taylor with her perfect life and her perfect boyfriend. Cameron and Coley strike up an intense friendship, one which becomes intense in many ways. When the intensity turns to something physical, Cameron is sent away by her Aunt to be "fixed". Cam is forced to face the reality of what it will mean to deny her true self - and the reality of figuring out who her true self really is.
This book was visually quite beautiful - the descriptions of vistas, towns and places were striking and appealing to the reader. Cameron was a character I enjoyed meeting - and about whom I'd love to read more. Danforth scripted her characters beautifully and believably, and their joys and angst were quite visible and tangible as you navigated their lives. Character, setting, plot - all of these tenants of storytelling were beautifully developed and left the reader informed and wanting more.
This is one book I can't wait to share with my students.
I rate this book 5/5.
Goodreads page.