Archive for the ‘Noreen's Picks’ Category

BlondeI have been a fan of Anna Godbersen’s books since she first published. Her descriptions of life in New York were amazing, and she is a graduate of Barnard College, as am I, which made me enjoy her work more than ever. When my husband brought me her latest book, I was looking for more about life in New York City more than a century ago. Boy was I wrong! The Blonde is something else entirely. This is a story set in time I remember well.

We meet a struggling Marilyn Monroe, who was a constant figure in the news and pretty much a part of the lives of movie goers and news features. She was a beautiful woman, an unhappy woman with multiple marriages and a drug problem, and someone who was a lost soul. The book shares that, but it also shares something else. In general, we also knew that Senator and later President John F. Kennedy was something of a philanderer. But this book ties Marilyn Monroe not only to his philandering, but also to the assassination of Kennedy. I had seen television shows that included Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK, but I was probably too young to connect all the dots.

Almost everyone of school age and older remembers where they were when the news of the JFK assassination spread. People were glued to the television, watching the swearing in of President Johnson, seeing Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. The funeral was on all televisions. What followed were investigations which somehow never seemed to completely explain what really happened.

Anna Godbersen has created her own theory. Not only is it plausible, but it is told beautifully. Sometimes the real story is, in fact, stranger than fiction. If for no other reason, read The Blonde just to enjoy a mesmerizing story that will leave you wondering.

Check the WRL catalog for The Blonde

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Plenty (1985)

plenty To be fair, I was not a major fan of Meryl Streep. I know there were many who would disagree with me, but it wasn’t until Out of Africa that I was hooked. And I’ll admit that my original attraction to that movie was Robert Redford. But as I grew up, I really learned to appreciate her talent and flexibility, and I became a fan. I came across Plenty and decided to watch, and I am glad I did. She did an amazing acting job in this film.

The movie starts when she, as a young girl, is part of the Resistance in World War II. After the war, she becomes enmeshed in English politics and the good life, but something is missing. Her attempts to have a child out of wedlock fail. Her relationships with men are not easy. Ultimately she marries well, but is still dissatisfied. In some ways she is a victim of her time. During the war, women assumed new roles, but after the war they were expected to revert to pre-war roles. It was not a happy transition for many. Her attempts slowly lead her into behaviors that are not yet acceptable in society. This leads into a stronger descent to mental illness, or at least what the prim and proper consider mental illness.

This is not a happy movie and does not have a happy ending. However, I think it is a realistic view that portrays how many women felt in the times. The whole cast is amazing; every character does a superb job of acting. Plenty, in many ways, shows the real beginning of the women’s movement and foreshadows the future when women will take control of their lives. It is a bit of history we generally ignore, but our lives today were certainly changed by the characters in this film.

Check the WRL catalog for Plenty



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Noreen is hooked on a new teen series. Here’s her review of the first book:

selectionAmerica Singer lives in llea, which was once the United States, but now is a country with a caste system, a monarchy, and lots of rebel groups.  Her family is in the third caste, which is not great but is also not terrible.  However, an opportunity to better their lot appears when the Palace sends out a call for The Selection.  Each province can send one young woman to live in the palace and vie for the honor of marrying Prince Maxon Schreave.  Sound familiar?  Yes, it’s the Bachelorette meeting royalty in a dystopian land.  But, you want to keep reading.

America also has a secret.  She is in love with Aspen, the son of a neighbor who is in a lower caste.  They meet secretly at night in a tree house in America’s yard.  Aspen is the sole provider for his family. He is constantly working and is always hungry.  As America’s family keeps pushing her to enter the contest, Aspen seems to be withdrawing, indicating hat he has found another woman. America finally agrees to enter, and, of course, is selected.

The characters were interesting and constantly developing.  Plus the descriptions of everyday life in the castle, including clothes and meals, were wonderful. The relationships among the women vying for the Prince’s hand provide humor and some intrigue.

Equally intriguing is the relationship that develops between America and Prince Maxon.  She is completely up front with the prince about not wanting to win, while admitting that she’d like to stay, if only for the food and clothes.  Prince Maxon is obviously interested.  Enter Aspen who is now a military guard.  America is caught between her feelings for Aspen and the Prince.  How will it end?  We need to wait for the next book.

The Selection ends with us waiting to see who America will choose and how it will work out.  And I do want to know.  The Selection has also been selected for a possible television series.  Kudos to Kiera Cass on her first novel with Harper Teen.  And if you like her work, read her first book, Sirens, which was self-published. You won’t be sorry.

Check the WRL catalog for The Selection

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In today’s review, Noreen reflects on some recent and not-so-recent trends in fiction for teens:

PortraitJennieHaving just read Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake, I planned to blog about  it.  However, my colleague Jennifer D. had already done that.  After reading the book and Jennifer’s post, I started thinking about all the paranormal literature that is being written for young adults, and how teens respond to it. While it is relatively new to today’s teens, after years of books like Sweet Valley High, supernatural fiction obviously isn’t all that new.  We’ve had horror classics like Dracula and Frankenstein, but there were also popular supernatural romance stories in the 1940s and 50s.

After World War II, Daniel Bubbeo wrote a play, The Enchanted Cottage, which was partly written to ease the pain of the disfigured veterans who were returning home.  The plot was simple—a homely maid and a scarred ex GI meet in a cottage.  They decide to marry more out of loneliness than love.  As the relationship deepens they become more and more beautiful to each other.  The movie, starring Robert Young and  Dorothy McGuire, with the help of an able make-up crew, actually shows the transformation of the characters.

And who can forget Portrait of Jennie.  Eben Adams, a struggling artist, encounters a young girl in Central Park named Jennie who prattles on about things from the past. Just as Eben is about to ask her some questions, Jenny disappears.  She reappears in future months looking a bit older each time. He paints her portrait, which turns out to be the turning point in his career. Eben also uncovers information that tells him he is falling in love with the ghost of a girl who perished during a hurricane years ago. On the anniversary of the hurricane, he rushes to the site where she supposedly perished.  As a new storm approaches, Jennie disappears for a final time.  Eben is almost convinced she was a figment of his imagination, until he realizes he is holding her scarf in his hand.  He also realizes that their love will endure through the magic of his portrait.

Anna Dressed in Blood has the same emotional content as The Enchanted Cottage and the Portrait of Jennie.  The difference is the violence in Anna Dressed in Blood.  It makes me wonder if today’s books mirror what’s going on in our world.  We seem to be a society filled with random violence, which is reflected in the literature.  The question becomes:  can an old fashioned love story stand on its own?

Check the WRL catalog for Portrait of Jennie

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Today’s post is by Youth Services Director Noreen Bernstein.

Dystopian worlds are hot, and books about teens living in some sort of dystopia abound. The trick is finding the good ones that blend the normal day-to-day things with the fantastical and make it believable. Beth Fantaskey does this deftly with charm, wit, and a voice that resounds for both teens and adults.

Jill Jekel is your ultimately good teenage girl who is smart, nice, and not so popular. Her father’s murder and her mother’s descent into severe depression leave Jill pretty much on her own to cope with everyday things. On top of this, Jill learns that her college fund has been depleted, presumably by her father before his murder.

Tristen Hyde, a newcomer to Supplee Mill High School, is a bit mysterious, very handsome, and the one person who comforts Jill at her father’s funeral. She is not sure why he came and why he seems interested in her. Yet she is drawn to him for reasons she does not understand. Tristen is haunted by dreams he does not understand.

When Mr. Messerschmidt, the high school science teacher, announces a science project contest attached to college tuition, Jill is interested, hoping to work with Tristen, who unfortunately does not seem interested. When Jill mentions a box of papers in her father’s study that were secret, Tristen changes his mind and they start working together on the project. Added to the mix is a complete breakdown by Jill’s mother who turns to Tristen’s father who is a psychiatrist.

Everyone in this book has an agenda:  the likeable Jill who is falling in love with Tristen; Tristen with his nightmarish memories who is falling for Jill, but afraid; and Tristan’s father who wants power through his son; even Mr. Messerschmidt has a surprising role that is only disclosed at the end of the story. It is a painful mix for all, that creates tension for the reader wondering who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.

The climax, while somewhat predictable, has enough twists and turns to keep the reader wanting to know how it will all turn out. As mentioned on the book cover:  “They say love is all about great chemistry.” — Jekel Loves Hyde has enough chemistry paired  with teenage angst and a touch of the unreal to keep readers turning the pages. This could even cause readers to check out the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Check the WRL catalog for Jekel Loves Hyde


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Today’s post is from Youth Services Director Noreen Bernstein.

            In this time of werewolves, vampires, zombies, and dystopian worlds, it is refreshing to find a teen novel about real people and a real time. Allie’s story starts in 1939 when she is living with her mother in Tennessee. Her mother is suffering from brain cancer and Allie is coping as best she can. Her neighbor Sam tries to help but Allie is not sure that she wants his assistance. Sam has a crush on Allie but she is too wrapped up in caring for her mother to care. And on one of the days she does spend time with Sam, her mother dies, leaving Allie alone and thinking that if she had been there she could have saved her mother.

            Allie is adopted by Miss Beatrice in Maine. After a brief transition period, the book moves to 1943. While Allie has adapted somewhat to her new life, she still holds onto her mother, her mother’s fervent belief in atheism, and her need to keep her emotions carefully hidden. She does find friends at school, and becomes somewhat close to Miss Beatrice’s older daughter. And who returns to her life? Sam, who is visiting a relative living next door to Miss Beatrice. A new relationship begins between Allie and Sam.

            The book is set against the background of World War II and includes all the emotions of teens growing up and finding their place in the world. The developing relationship between Allie and Sam, while a little predictable, rings true as does Allie’s search for the meaning of life and for a way to hold on to her late mother while  learning to accept the love of Miss Beatrice and her new friends.

            Interrupted is a first novel by Rachel Coker who is 16 years old and a longtime user of Williamsburg Regional Library. As a children’s librarian at WRL for many years, it is amazing to read a book written by a young lady we’ve known as a child. Seeing a library user grow up and produce a book that has been well reviewed and is well worth reading is the perfect gift for those of us at Williamsburg Regional Library.

            Interrupted is a good read for younger teens as well as adults.  The characters, setting, and emotions are real and many teens will identify with Allie, Sam, and the other characters.

Check the WRL catalog for Interrupted: Life Beyond Words.


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The sequel to Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side finds Jessica married to Lucius Vladescu and living in a castle.  In many a story this would be the beginning of happily ever after, but not for Jess.  She has to prove herself and claim her throne by convincing the Vampire nation that she is capable and can rule.  Everything is hard, even ordering food, speaking the language, and figuring out who is for and who is against her.  When Lucius is accused of murder, her one rock is gone.  Who can she trust?  Her uncle and his daughter who seem to care, her best friend Mindy who has come to stay and help, or Lucius’s Cousin Rainero Lovatu?  Can Jessica save Lucius and herself?

As the story unfolds we learn more about Rainero and Mindy, who have established their own relationship full of twists and turns.  Uncle Dorin seems to want to help as does his daughter Ylenia.  We are drawn into the morass of problems and responsibilities Jessica faces.  Can she prove herself worthy of becoming Queen?

Beth Fantaskey has created a fascinating Vampire world inhabited by memorable characters.  Even Jessica, who sometimes seems wimpy, is real and believable.  And, while Jessica does ultimately rise to the occasion, the book ends before we know if she will actually become Queen.  The book is beautifully written and staged, leaving the reader hoping for a third book telling us how it all ends for Jessica and Lucius, Mindy and Rainero, and Vampire  nation.

If you read Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side, you should visit Beth Fantaskey’s web site and read about The Wedding before reading Jessica Rules the Dark Side.

Check the WRL catalog for Jessica Rules the Dark Side

Check the WRL catalog for Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side


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Our first post this week is from Youth Services Director Noreen Bernstein.

Much of what is being published today for teens deals with vampires, werewolves, Goths, zombies, and so on, but there are a few titles that are equally exciting and, even better, they are historical fiction. Strings Attached by Judy Blundell is one of the best.

Set in Providence, Rhode Island and New York City between the 1940s and 1950s, Strings Attached follows the life of Kit Corrigan, one of a set of triplets who cost their mother her life. Their Irish father, while loving, is not exactly a dependable worker, and the triplets bring each other up in many ways. Kit is the dancer in the family, so at age 17 she moves to New York City in search of a career as a performer. She is also fleeing from her boyfriend, Billy, a student at Brown and the son of a lawyer connected to the mob. As a result of her departure Billy enlists in the military currently fighting the Korean War.

Through flashbacks the plot unfolds: the relationship between Nate Benedict, Billy’s father, and Kit’s father is entwined with a long ago relationship between Aunt Delia, Kit’s father’s sister, and Nate Benedict. The book paints a vivid picture of Kit’s struggle to make it as a dancer and actress, her wish to reconcile with Billy, her fears of Billy’s father, and the mystery of what happened to Aunt Delia. This book is a web of deceit, love, murder, intrigue, family relations, fame, and fortune.

The fiction is interwoven with actual events of the time, including a stunning conclusion shaped around the November 1950 Long Island Railroad wreck that killed more than 75 people. As a young child I remember that accident; my mother was on one of those trains, which in some way made this book more real than ever.

This book is beautifully written, with real characters who represent the historical period in which they lived. The mores of the time are radically different from today and the actions of the characters represent this. This is a true picture of life in New York City and Providence, Rhode Island in this time period. But, in some ways, it is also a story of today, proving that the human condition does not always change with the times. This story is for mature readers who will appreciate all the emotions, conflicts, and mores that control and motivate the characters.  A great read.

Check the catalog for Strings Attached.


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Hachi (2010)

Today’s post is from Youth Services Director Noreen Bernstein.

Years ago, while preparing a presentation on children’s books about World War II, I came across two titles, Hachiko: the True Story of a Loyal Dog by Pamela S. Turner and Hachiko Waits by Leslie Newman. Both books chronicled the story of a Japanese man and his loyal Akita, Hachiko. Every day Hachiko accompanied his master to the train station and then returned each evening to meet him. But one day the master did not come home, having suffered a fatal heart attack. Despite the efforts of friends to adopt him, Hachiko spent the rest of his life, more than ten years, waiting at the train station for his master to return.

The film, Hachi, based on this story, takes place in New England. Parker Wilson (Richard Gere) is a professor of music who, returning home one night, finds an Akita puppy lost at the station. His wife, Cate (Joan Allen), is not enthusiastic about a dog, but as they look for the owner, the bond between the dog and the professor becomes so clear that she relents. Every day Hachi accompanies the professor to the station and returns to meet him.

Hachi becomes a beloved member of the family. He also becomes a favorite with members of the community. When Parker dies, the family moves, and the daughter and her husband try to make a home for the dog. However, Hachi needs to be at that train station. The bond between Hachi and the family is deep enough that they understand they have to let go. For the rest of his life, over ten years, Hachi faithfully meets the train every day. The townspeople care for him while respecting his loyalty and independence.

The film is beautifully done, and well acted. In many ways the several Akitas who portray Hachi at varying ages are the real stars. The love, the pain and sense of loss portrayed by the dogs is palpable.

Toward the end of the film, Cate returns to visit Parker’s grave. As she returns to the train station to leave, Hachi is sitting and waiting. The reunion between them and the shared sense of loss will resonate with animal lovers everywhere.

This is an excellent family film to share. Just keep the tissues close at hand.

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When Linger was released last week, I was both excited and a bit cautious. Shiver, the first book in this trilogy, was amazing and, in my opinion, it set a new standard for teen fiction dealing with Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies, and whatever.  Would Linger live up to my expectations, or like many second, third and fourth books in a series, would it just rearrange the characters and problems ultimately telling the same story over and over?  What a wonderful surprise to find that Linger is as compelling, beautifully written, and enjoyable as the first book.

Sam and Grace are still two teenagers grappling with teen problems as well as the new reality that Sam will no longer shift from human form to wolf.  His internal struggle with this is amazingly believable.  Grace is struggling as well, with a strange illness and with the angst of not yet being 18 and totally free to make her own choices.  These are real teens who have teen problems, but who also have the determination to fight for what they want.

Isobel, a somewhat minor and unlikable character in the first book, becomes a major player in Linger.  As with all of us, she too is a complex teenager whose façade of sarcasm and anger starts to crack, making her another real teen who is vulnerable and struggling with life. Stiefvater accomplishes this while retaining Isobel’s feisty approach to reality.    And then there is Cole, a new character, as complicated and real as the others.

While Grace’s parents have previously been pretty nonchalant about Grace’s activities, in Linger they start reacting to some situations in a more stereotypical parental way.  All of this makes all of them very real.  Most people are much more complicated than they seem at first, and Maggie Stiefvater has created characters with whom we can all identify on multiple levels.

Linger is filled with subtle foreshadows and clues that let the reader speculate on the future of Grace and Sam.  But somehow the author has provided just enough surprises as the reader reaches the conclusion of the book, to keep you both reading, wondering, and worrying about these people you have learned to like, respect, and love.

After reading the last page, I marveled at how much I enjoyed the book, on the one hand, and yet horrified on the other, that I would be wondering what happens to Grace and Sam and company and worrying about them until next year when the final book Forever comes out.

A book, that is well written and resounds with real people and their problems, while still creating a vivid fantasy world, is a rare treat.

Maggie Stiefvater will be speaking at the Williamsburg Library Theatre, 515 Scotland St., Williamsburg, VA, 23185,  on Friday August 13 at 7:00 pm. A book signing will follow. The program is free and open to the public.

Check the WRL catalog for Linger or Shiver


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Youth Services Director Noreen Bernstein recommended this DVD.  She was right—Arranged is a great movie and one I highly recommend as well.

Arranged is about two young women working in a New York elementary school.  As one of them tells her family, their school is like the United Nations—all different types of people attend.  That’s part of the beauty of this award-winning film.

The two main characters are Rochel, an Orthodox Jew, and Nasira, a Muslim.  Despite coming from such different backgrounds, the women find commonality in their devotion to teaching and in their personal lives.  Both women are going through their families’ traditional method for finding a husband—an arranged marriage.  And in sharing their concerns and joys, the women develop a strong bond of friendship.

Both women have the strength and ability to stay within the limits of their faith despite the pressures of the modern world.  Rochel challenges her school administrator to accept that being “modern” isn’t any better than being traditional, it’s just different.  And there are modern accoutrements they embrace, like cell phones.  That comes in handy when Nasira describes surreptitiously taking a picture of herself intended to show Rochel.

This independent, low-budget film is delightful.  The movie includes humor, romance, and a lesson about acceptance.

Check the WRL catalog for Arranged.


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Noreen Bernstein of Youth Services provides today’s review:

At first, Stars Above Us appears to be a beautifully crafted addition to the cadre of books that help children with their fear of the dark. When Amanda confesses her fear of the dark because it is full of scary things, Dad takes her outside. Together they see the fireflies, which are not scary, but fun, the stars that are beautiful, and the crickets that sound nice. While Amanda agrees that the dark outside is not scary but lovely, she is not totally convinced about the dark in her room.

The next day Daddy brings home craft supplies and turns Amanda’s bedroom into a starry paradise that mimics the outside. Daddy explains about the North Star, which can be seen from anywhere in the world. He asks Amanda to think of him when she sees it while he is away. Before he leaves he brings another companion to comfort Amanda during his absence. They name the dog Bear, another name for the Big Dipper. As Amanda awaits her Daddy’s return, we see how she and Bear grow. We also see that Daddy is in the military and defending his country in a faraway place. A phone call from Daddy encourages Amanda to use the North Star as a wishing star for his safe return. Amanda and her mother plan their own surprise for Daddy. When he does come home safely, Amanda and her mom have added stars, a moon, planets, and fireflies to her ceiling, making it a true representation of the night sky.

The combination of lyrical language and elegant illustration makes this an excellent choice for children who need reassurance about the dark. However Stars Above Us is more. While war is not mentioned, the illustration of Daddy in fatigues provides a clear message for adults and older children. This book is appropriate for any child who has an absent father, and particularly for those children whose parents are involved in current world conflicts. The message is timeless yet very contemporary. The best picture books, like the best marriages, blend the language and art, creating a whole that is superior to the two parts. Geoffrey Norman and E. B. Lewis have accomplished this in Stars Above Us. The book is timeless and current, lyrical and beautiful, and should become a classic.

Check the WRL catalog for Stars Above Us.


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Noreen Bernstein of Youth Services provides today’s review:

Move over, Edward and Bella, Sam and Grace have come to town!  As books about vampires, werewolves, zombies, and the undead crowd library and bookstore shelves, the reader begins to notice a similarity among the plots and characters.  The Twilight series for many reasons has become a standard with which many compare the new books.  Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater, should, and will, challenge that standard by raising the bar.

On the surface, Grace is a typical teenager living in Mercy Falls, Minnesota.  Her parents are caring but quirky, leaving Grace alone much of the time.  She is haunted by a childhood memory of being attacked by the wolves that inhabit woods surrounding her home and being saved by a wolf with golden eyes.  Throughout her childhood, Grace remembers seeing “her” wolf during the winter.  What is the connection between them?

Maggie Stiefvater creates her own werewolf mythology based on temperature and occasional traumatic events.  When the town believes that a teen has been killed by the wolves that roam Mercy Falls, the wolves are hunted and Sam, injured by a gunshot, literally falls into Grace’s arms in his human form.  As the relationship between Sam and Grace develops, Stiefvater tells a moving and realistic love story between two teenagers willing to work and fight to develop their relationship.  The emotions and missteps of young love are realistically portrayed.

The task of keeping Sam in his human form is fraught with danger, but Grace and Sam persevere.  The supporting cast in Shiver is as well developed as the two main characters.  They are the teens that populate our world.  The combination of character development and lyrical language keep the reader riveted to the story.  Plus the development of the characters in their wolf personas is equally well-done.  All of this allows the reader to engage in the suspension of disbelief that makes great books and movies work. Shiver works.  It is a complete package of character development, setting, suspense, and romance.  I think most readers will be eagerly awaiting the sequel, Linger, in 2010.  I know I am.

Check the WRL catalog for Shiver.


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