Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Book Video: Extreme Pumpkins by Tom Nardone

In honor of Halloween, check out this video, which goes with Tom Nardone's Extreme Pumpkins:



Happy Halloween!

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Interview: Eric Nuzum, author of The Dead Travel Fast

Over on my other blog, downtheshorewithjen.blogspot.com, I interviewed Eric Nuzum, author of The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula. I run a regular feature over there called "Down the Shore with..." where I ask people with ties to the South Jersey shore what they love about the area, and here's a direct link to my Q&A with Eric.

Why the South Jersey Shore? Check out my author profile -- that's what my book is about! That'll be coming out on May 5, 2008 -- as soon as a pre-order link is available, I'll post it here.

Whenever that Q&A over at "Down the Shore with..." is with an author, I'll post a link here, too. I write about authors and books quite a bit, so if any of those articles are linkable, I'll give you guys a heads up. For example, if you'd like to read my article about Eric from the October issue of Washingtonian, click here.

Read more about The Dead Travel Fast here.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Book 5 of 52: Wired by Liz Maverick


Surprised, right? Me, too. Romance novels aren't exactly my thing.

Not that you could really call Wired a romance novel. Yes, there is a sex scene, and a battle for love, and a mention of six pack abs. It's not exactly an adventure or sci fi novel, either. It's a merge of all three -- and I don't read any of these genres. So how did I choose Wired? Because of Book Expo America.

For the last two years, I've gone to Book Expo America on assignment for Poets & Writers magazine. It's hard to describe what BEA is because it can be a lot of things for a lot of people. For me, it's a long, exhausting pair of days where I try to take in what just about every publisher in America -- and beyond -- is saying will be the next greatest thing, and it's my chance to get a jump on what will be coming out over the next six months. I mine for story ideas, shake hands, kiss babies -- well, maybe I don't kiss babies, but I do try to pass out as many business cards as I can, and pick up as much press material as I can. I still have a stack from BEA 2007 on my desk waiting to be filed. Yes, I collected up that many.

My first year was the 2006 convention in Washington, DC. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. I had no idea there were so many publishers, let alone books. If you want to know why not every book published makes the author a millionaire, just go to BEA.

I also had a blast. I manged to crash a university press party and was such a hit that they invited to the party surrounded this year's Book Expo, which was held in New York City. Given that I knew more people, and that I knew we'd all have a good time, I ended up staying out later and hitting some of the bigger parties of the evening, one of which involved hired models dressed like Greek Gods. Very strange, but very fun (though not as strange as the 2006 after party I went to, which involved an unfinished restaurant, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and a guy wearing a rabbit outfit. I am not making this up).

As a result of the Greek God party, I had a pinch of a headache the next day. Instead of settling for a bagel while sitting on the floor of Penn Station to wait for my train, I headed to the Cellar at the flag ship Macy's store, which is across the street from Penn Station. I didn't go to BEA with a book to read because I knew I'd be picking up free galleys along the way. I wasn't interested in the baseball game on the TV, so I rifled through whatever I'd stuffed into the Puff the Magic Dragon take home bag, which was a hit at the expo (something's big every year -- last year was Captain Underpants bags; this year was Puff the Magic Dragon bags). Most of the books were tucked away in my suitcase, except for a slim red paperback that said "Shomi." I'd picked it up in the BEA press room. I'm not sure why -- probably because it was small and I liked the logo. My food came out of the kitchen, and I dug in, to both the sandwich and the book.

I liked what I read. Maybe it was the fast pace of the novel, the hangover that would have prevented any heavy literature from filtering through, or the time bending weaved through the plot (if you've read my post where I came out of the Star Trek closet, you'd understand why this caught my eye), but I was intrigued. What I didn't realize, though, was that the slim volume held snippets of three different novels, not one whole one. So I was left hanging, wondering whatever happened to Leo, Mason and Rox.

In the haze of work that was this summer, I forgot about Wired. I couldn't give up on it, though. I figured I might be able to write about it somewhere, so I stuffed it into my nightstand. I found it again when I rearranged my bedroom furniture, so when I wanted something a bit less dense after Of a Feather, I picked up a copy of Wired.

I quickly read through the first few chapters, which had made up the excerpted portion of the Shomi volume. Woo hoo! I can find out the rest of what happened! But the reasons why I don't particularly enjoy the genre caught up with me. There was little to no plot development, and the plot seemed way too far out there. After the next 30 pages, though, I got the hang of the writing style ("I did this. I then did that." kind of thing) and enjoyed the book for what it was: a fast, quick light read where the good guy had a 99% chance of winning. It's a beach book (the novel was published in July) -- or a decent paperback to kick back with on a rainy Friday night.

One sad thing I realized as I went over my 2008 calendar (yes, I'm one of those annoying people who has to plan 2008 stuff this early) is that I probably won't be going to BEA in 2008. It's in Los Angeles, and it's being held the week after Memorial Day weekend, which is when I plan to do my heaviest PR for my book. Oh, well. There's always 2009.

I have no idea what book 6 of 52 will be. Stay tuned.

P.S. Isn't Liz Maverick a great name for a romance novel author? It's almost as good as Mason Merrick, one of the main men in the book. Who comes up with this stuff?

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Book 4 of 52: Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul


I've been asked why I review what I review. In 2007, I've offered my opinions on books about giant pumpkins, rats, smokers, and a cancer patient addicted to the Price is Right. Sometimes the books are assigned, but, more often than not, I pick what I review. I've been drawn in by an interesting cover and a great pitch letter, but the usual reason I'll pick something is because a book crosses wires with something else going on in my life.

Such is the case with Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul. This time last year, I had zero interest in birding. Like Weidensaul thought as a teenager, my idea of a birder was more along the lines of that woman on Old Maid cards than someone like, well, me.

But then I started writing a book about the South Jersey shore, and I learned, among other things, that Cape May is a birders haven. Weidensaul writes that "Cape May...may be the single best place in North American -- perhaps the world -- for birding."

Well, damned if I didn't write a bucket of pages about Cape May this summer for my book, including a passage dedicated to birding at the southern most town in New Jersey. And damned if I didn't write an article about ideal birding spots in New Jersey soon after. Too bad I never placed that article I wanted to write about the World Series of Birding, where, in the middle Saturday of May, teams of birders spent 24 hours IDing as many birds as possible within the boundaries in NJ. Cape May is a must stop for any World Series birding team.

All this was on my mind when I opened up the package that held Of a Feather. Weidensaul's timing, at least in relation to me, was perfect.

I liked the book. I probably would have liked it more if I was a birder and had a tenth of the passion toward the sport as Weidensaul does, but that doesn't preclude me from admiring his writing ability, and style. His passage in the last pages of the Of a Feather about an elementary school class seeing a northern saw-whet owl for the first time is so well written that I could see both the little bird, and those little kids and their combined wonder, even though I was reclining on my couch in New Jersey and the only wildlife around was a snoring Jack Russell Terrier. Good writing can make me interesting in anything -- my penchant for this book is evidence of that.

Weidensaul also reminded me of what a dork I am, because through the entire passage about how, in the late 1800s, people tried to introduce bird species to other parts of the world, all I could think about was Star Trek's prime directive. I'm a firm believer that lessons learned from Star Trek, like Shakespeare and Scrubs, can be applied to every life situation. Forget Kindergarten. Everything I learned cam from the Bard, Gene Roddenbury and Bill Lawrence. That's more than a little scary. And pathetic, if you ask me. But I know there are a lot of closet Star Trek fans who would agree.

This also marks the first time that I am writing here about a book I've been assigned to review. I debated for some time (at least half of my six mile run on Sunday) about how to approach this. What I realized is that these essays have little to do with my newspaper reviews. The only things they have in common are the book and whether I give it an overall thumbs up or down. Plus, I only have 350-600 words in a newspaper review, so that writing is very tight and give bare bones opinions about what I think of the book. I tried to write about that elementary school/owl passage in the review, but there just wasn't space. I can write however much I like here, and I can relate birds to Spock if I feel like it, or post this Scrubs clip because I think it so mirrors how I feel about relationships right now:



Again -- all in a post about birds. Such is the beauty (or danger) of the internet.

When the review hits paper, I will post it here, much like I did with my review of Ed Hamilton's Legends of the Chelsea Hotel.

Until then, it's onto book 5 of 52...

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Review: Legends of the Chelsea Hotel by Ed Hamilton


Legends of the Chelsea Hotel
isn't part of my 52 books in 52 weeks project since I read it this summer, but as you're reading this blog as a fan of books, or because you're related to me (or both), an extra review can't hurt, so here's the review from today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

Read more about Legends of the Chelsea Hotel at www.hotelchelseablog.com.

I'm wading through what will be book four of 52. It's not taking me as long to read as I thought, but that could also be because I'm conscious of the clock ticking on this project. I'm using every space of free time I can to read, and then some, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Also, make sure to check out Ask Allison on Monday. She interviewed me about book reviewing, and the Q&A is scheduled to go live then.

**UPDATE** The post is now live. Check it out here (and welcome Ask Allison readers!)

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Book 3 of 52: Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner


To lunch on Wednesday, I wore the following outfit:

1. Vintage 1988 Broad Street Run t-shirt
2. Brown GAP pants
3. Brown New Balance sneakers

As I checked myself in the mirror one more time before I left, I came to a sad realization: At 27, I still have the fashion sense of a high school tomboy.

How fitting, then, that I'd just started Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner.

Spanking Shakespeare is about Shakespeare Shapiro, a high school senior who spends most of his time brooding about his status as unpopular, and a virgin. He spends most of the book, told in memoir form, pondering why he is unpopular and a virgin, and how he can remedy both situations.

I'm told by the PR materials that this book is for young readers. I'm not sure how I feel about that, and not only because of the NSFW content (and, near the end, drawing). I'm all for letting teenagers read books with cursing, sex and all kinds of adult themes. My issue with the young reader label is that Spanking Shakespeare has the potential to entertain grown ups.

Who doesn't have awkward high school memories? I skipped over a lot of that teenage dating angst because I had a boyfriend though most of high school (though it caught up with me in college and still rents out a big chunk of my brain), but I can related to the protagonist. Like him, I obsessed about the smallest details. Would the hot guy in my math class tell his buddies that I showed him my retainer? Were my pants pegged at the appropriate length? Were my bangs of acceptable fluffiness? Or should I grow them out? What if I don't grow them out? Will people cut me out of their prom pictures?

And on, and on.

So it's adult-appropriate in the sense that we can relate, and laugh. The other issue I have with Spanking Shakespeare in the adult/young reader argument is that writing is so grown up. I'm not saying that there aren't high school kids who can write like Wizner does as Shapiro. But I think the writing is too perfect and too well crafted for it to be done by a high school senior.

I took a graduate writing class with Lisa Zeidner, and as a class, we talked about this at length. When writing about childhood, you can take one of two points of view: write it in the voice of whatever age you were at that time, which means you cannot have adult-like revelations and insights, or look back and write about the events as yourself now, as an adult, where you can discuss the events as you see them now.

This should apply to memoir and fiction, and I would like to think that Spanking Shakespeare takes the latter point of view, but that's impossible since this is the memoir of a fictional high school character. It's not something that ruined the book -- I thought it was very entertaining, and funny -- but the point of view thing lingered, like a tickle you get at the back of your throat but can't get rid of. It doesn't hurt, but it's a distraction.

If you've been keeping track of these reviews and marvel at my speed reading ability, take heart: I'd already finished Julie & Julia when I started this project. The Four Man Plan was full of pictures and graphics, which sliced down how many words were in the book, and Spanking Shakespeare is being produced as a young adult book, so the type is larger than what you'd find in a for-adults book, which made for another zippy read -- plus I'd read half of Spanking Shakespeare before I dug into The Four Man Plan. I have a large, heavy book up next, and I'm reading it for a newspaper review, so I'll be taking my time through that one. Still, it's nice to put down three books in my first week. Stay tuned to see if I can keep up with the pace.

Read more about Spanking Shakespeare at www.jakewizner.com.

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Book 2 of 52: The Four Man Plan: A Romantic Science by Cindy Lu

Let's get this straight: I did not start reading this book because I just got dumped. I was assigned a Q&A with the author before that sucky Friday night. Because of that sucky Friday night, I wasn't really in the mood to read a book about dating, so I waited until the morning of the interview (today -- though it's been rescheduled to Monday) to hunker down with The Four Man Plan: A Romantic Science.

I'm not a big fan of dating books. I've read a few, both for articles and because friends pushed them down my throat, and a lot of them are variations of the same thing: common sense. Lu's book is of the same ilk, though with a lot of funny diagrams and a science-y twist. Still, the cornerstones are the same -- date a lot, and don't shag on the first date.

Here's my beef with dating books: No matter what they tell you, or what your family and/or friends give you in the way of advice, you're going to do what you want to do. I read He's Just Not That Into You, then promptly dove into what was the most hurtful, destructive and toxic relationship of my life. Even though I could see myself in the book, I soldiered forth because I thought I was different, and nothing and no one could change my mind. It took me a year and a half of "sorta" dating and then six months after extracting myself from that relationship (or after I got dumped -- depends on who you ask) to get over him. No book or common sense could save me.

Even the dating book that I've recommended to others, Susan Shapiro's Secrets of a Fix Up Fanatic, is a regurgitation of common sense. The difference was, at the time I read it (thanks to a friend who sent it my way), I wasn't being spurred forward by any kind of lust or challenge of changing a bad boy. I was receptive, and her tips or philosophy or whatever you want to call it are in line with mine (plus, I think she's a great writer, and great writing can carry me through just about any topic).

I'm the kind of person who can go to a party by myself and see it as a great way to meet new people. I'll go to a concert solo and make friends with those around me. So Shapiro's advice of talking to guys, and asking to be set up, already fit my personality, and the push of reading her book helped. It lead me to ask a guy in a crowded bar "Is that your mother?" when the person I pointed to was obviously not his mother. I have no idea why that came to mind, but it broke the ice, and we had a great date a few days later. I also took her advice of dating a few guys at once, and giving them more than one date to prove themselves. That seemed to work, too, though I stopped all that when the guy who just dumped me asked me if I'd date only him.

This is why I think Lu's book has a lot of merit if you're in the right frame of mind. I like that she laces humor throughout, and that the book is not so much about "you will find your soul mate if you do this" but "this might be an interesting way to approach dating." I especially like her concept of 'quarters.' I'm not going to into her whole theory here, but she says that we should collect 'quarter men' like we do quarters in change. If you lose one, it's no big deal -- especially if you have a few quarters in your pocket already.

Best of all, it's not one of those books that tells you that the only way to win a man is play coy, shy, and take on the submissive role because that's what a guy wants. If a publisher sends me that kind of book, I don't even bother to donate it to the library. It goes right in the recycling bin.

I'm also a sucker for anything with Einstein quotes, and Lu uses them throughout The Four Man Plan (if you're really interested in Einstein, I highly recommend Jean-Claude Carriere's Please Mr. Einstein. It gives a more realistic portrait of Einstein than that goofy poster of him sticking out his tongue, with a sci fi twist).

For two hours and one assignment, it was worth the read. I'm not ready to implement any plans beyond "get over him," but that quarter thing is a nice thought to have in the back of my mind.

Read more at www.fourmanplan.com.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Book 1 of 52: Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell


A little while ago, I read My Life in France by Julia Child. I'm not a good cook, but I have a fondness for Julia. Not only was she great on camera, but I knew she'd led a fascinating life and, being recently dumped, I liked to remind myself that Julia didn't find her 'soul mate,' Paul Child, until her late 30s.

As I read My Life in France, a loose thought jiggled in my brain. Something about someone cooking along to Julia to get out of a funk. I'd read about it in a book catalogue, but I couldn't remember more than that. A quick google search got me the answer: Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. Better yet, it had just come out in paperback. Better still, Borders was selling the hardback version for $4.99. And I had a $5 coupon. Sold.

Powell wasn't trying to get over a break up by cooking her way through Child's Master the Art of French Cooking, but a general life slump. She worked for a government agency, lived in a crappy apartment, and was stuck in marital ennui. So she started cooking, and doing stuff I couldn't conceive of trying in my kitchen, including things with ducks and lobsters that would be illegal if it involved humans.

I liked this book. It's a quick read, and Powell's informal and casual pace kept me rolling right though. I also appreciate that the book wasn't just a reprint of her blog entries. The blog was only a minor character in the story about moving past a tough time in your life by doing something different. Great way to start this project, if you ask me.

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The Beginning

I like to read. A lot. Whenever I move, my mom asks "do we have to move all your books? Again?" I have managed to turn books into a sliver of my freelance career -- I review for a few newspapers and magazines, and write about books and authors, too, if not profiles, then using them as 'experts' in my magazine articles.

I can't give you one reason why I like books. I think they offer an escape, and a much more textured and indulgent one than you'll find on TV. Even the frothiest of novels demands more from you than watching TV, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

I know that reading a book a week is not a new idea, nor is it a new idea to do so and write about it. But why not give it a go? I find myself drifting when I don't have a book to read, and I'm in need of an anchor.

Why? I was just dumped for the second time this year -- for the third time in the last 12 months. Even aside from the dumping thing, it's been a pretty crappy year: my grandfather died, my grandmother moved into an assisted living facility, my income took a dip, and I'm tired. Just...tired.

I need something, and I think this might be it. And where did I find inspiration to take on such a project? Through a book, of course.

After I got dumped, I immersed myself in Julie Powell's Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. She hadn't just been dumped, but she was, like me, in need of an anchor. So why not start up a new project, and use a blog to hold me accountable? That's what this is.

I will read 52 books in 52 weeks. This doesn't mean that I will read a book a week -- sometimes I can finish a book in a day, sometimes it takes two weeks -- but I will read 52 by October 17, 2008, and I will post about each book as I finish them starting with...

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