Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Book 51 of 52: The Book Stops Here by Ian Sansom

I've shouted the praises of Ian Sansom's Mobile Library books on the blog before. They're a series of mystery spoofs about a Israel Armstrong, a Londoner who goes to the north of Northern Ireland to run a library in about as backwards a town as you can get. They're silly, fun mysteries, and I can't even tell you how many times I've recommended them.

So you can imagine how I felt when I saw that the third book, The Book Stops Here: A Mobile Library Mystery, was coming out in August (hence why there's no picture to go with this post). I even asked the Harper PR people about it before the summer catalogues came out. I literally jumped when I opened the package and saw The Book Stops Here: A Mobile Library Mysteryinside. I just finished it.

My review? I hate to say it, but...eh.

There's two problems with this installment of the series. First, the actual mystery doesn't come into play until page 132. Second, the bulk of the book takes place in London, not in that backwards Northern Irish town, and it's the people and places and habits of that town that really push along the comedy. The ridiculous characters are only at the start of the book. I wanted to see what they were up to, not be pushed into an entirely new cast in another country. It didn't work.

I'm disappointed. The book wasn't terrible, but it's not what I expected, and it's not as good as the other books in the series. Bah.

So if you'll look at the title of this post, you'll know I'm about to reach an important milestone. I have no idea what I'm going to read next. I feel like it should be something noteworthy, but I'm so darn tired from promoting my own book that I'll probably do what I always do: grab whatever strikes my fancy.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Redux: Omnivore's Dilemma

As part of my review of The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, book 40 of 52, I wrote about how I passed out during a wedding because of poor nutrition and dehydration. I knew I looked bad after it happened -- members of the bridal party told me I turned white -- but now I have proof.

Picture before passing out.


Picture after passing out.

That second picture is frightening. I look like a corpse.

Omnivore's Dilemma is probably the book I've talked about the most from this series. I think of it whenever I make food choices, and when I see food prices skyrocket. It shows how much industrially produced food is reliant on oil. It makes me sick (though not enough to pass out).

Anyway, that's my soapbox for the day.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Book 50 of 52: The Scandal Plan or: How to Win the Presidency by Cheating on Your Wife

So who's tired of election stuff already? I know I am -- after Pennsylvania became the epicenter of the latest primary vote off, I'm ready for it to be done -- and the Democrats haven't picked a candidate yet.

Which is why Bill Folman's The Scandal Plan: Or: How to Win the Presidency by Cheating on Your Wifeis the right book at the right time. The plot is ridiculous, which is the point -- it's a political farce, and a good one at that.

The gist is that the good guy is down. Way down. He's the perfect person for the Presidency job, but he's being out campaigned by an incumbent who's messed up the country and can't find a complete sentence with two hands and a flashlight (sound familiar?) So the idea is to give the good guy a flaw by creating an affair, one that happened long ago enough that it'll create a smear, but not a smear campaign. Of course everything goes wrong, but that's what makes the novel.

It's an incredibly silly book, but a fun one, and I really enjoyed reading it. If you're heavy into politics, or just sick of the ads, you'll be in on the joke, too. Good times.

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Twitter @jerseyshorejen

I finally bit the bullet and signed up for Twitter. My username is jerseyshorejen if you'd like to follow me!

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Book 49 of 52: Up Until Now by William Shatner

Another one I can't say much about, but at least I can tell you what I read and, briefly, what I think about it. The book is Up Till Now: The Autobiography. My thoughts? Bizarre. Entertaining but bizarre. He lets it all hang out, that's for sure.

I'm more of a Star Trek: the Next Generation Fan, but you can't like that part of the Star Trek empire without at least acknowledging the original series. What I found most interesting about this book, however, was learning how hard Shatner worked before and after Star Trek because, after all, that series only ran three seasons and was not an instant success.

This is the only book in the series that has brought attention from strangers -- at least to the point where a stranger approached me about what I was reading.

I read this one before and in between the last three books in this reading series, so I had it with me on Amtrak on my way to the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference. A man sat next to me at the Trenton stop. He was middle aged, had a slight paunch, stunk of smoke and talked on his cell phone -- a big no no in my book. Once he took the spot next to me, I tried to hide the cover of the book with my hand. Shatner is, well, Shatner. He might now have awards attached to his name, but he's still sort of campy, as is the cover of this book. But some time after his first phone call, he asked me (through my iPod no less) if that was the new Shatner book. I said yes and we ended up chatting into New York. There really are Trekkies everywhere.

I didn't think I would like this book as much as I did, probably because he (and his ghost writer, David Fisher) let him be himself. It's what made the book funny, and worth reading.

I'm glad to be done with it, though not because of the book but because I feel like I've finished a long sprint of assigned reading. I thought I'd want to take a break for a while, but, well, I just can't stay away from the books. At least I can pick what I'd like to read next!

With that, I leave you with a clip that I couldn't leave out of any post about Shatner (and something he writes about at length). Enjoy!

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Book 48 of 52: ?

Last one for a while, dear readers. Promise. It's nice to be done the "assigned book" sprint. I still have assigned books left to read, but at least I can blog about them after I've read the last page.

But I have to give you something. In the comments section of the last review post (the one where I shared my new headshot), Abra of Abra Goes asked me what the back of my head looked like -- a joke playing off my posts about 'back of the head' covers. Well, Abra, here you go:



That's a picture of me signing copies of my book at the Borders in Eatontown, NJ. You'll have to excuse the messy ponytail -- I'd been on the beach for most of the day. The ponytail on the back of The Department of Lost & Found, which was that first got me tuned into the back of the head trend, is much neater.

Speaking of that book, it came out in paperback today. For the author's post on the topic, click here. I chose the book as one of my summer beach picks for 2007, and my review's even blurbed on the back. So it's safe to assume I recommend it!

Allison Winn Scotch, the author, also interviewed me about travel writing and book reviewing. You can check out that Q&A here.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Redux: Guys Read

I few weeks ago, I posted an item about Guysread.com, which spurred me to write an article about the idea that guys don't read as much as women. That article appeared in today's Philadelphia Inquirer -- read it here.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Book 47 of 52: ?

Yup, another blank one. Sorry folks. I should be able to write about the next one, though.

But I can share my new headshot, which was taken on Monday:


I like it -- a lot. As good as the old picture was, it was just that -- old. And I'm a much different person now. I think this gives you a better idea of 'me.'

And here's some out takes. First, my office:



Second, an action series with my dog:



Fun day! And because I always give credit where credit is due: photos by Marc Steiner of Agency New Jersey.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My Book is Here


We interrupt our regular book reading series for an important announcement. My book, The Jersey Shore; Atlantic City to Cape May: Great Destinationsis officially up for sale!

Apparently a lot of people wanted this book, and my publisher decided to release it a few weeks early. So forget that May 5 publication date.

Want a copy? I'm giving two away at my Down the Shore with Jen blog. Find out how to enter by clicking here.

Here she is on the shelf at Barnes & Noble in Marlton, NJ.


When I first saw it on the shelf on Saturday, I thought "hey, that's cool." It's taken a few days -- and a few emails from people who picked up a copy -- for it to sink in that I wrote a book, and it's for sale for anyone who wants to buy one. It's dizzying.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Book 46 of 52: ?

So begins a short stretch where I can't tell you what I just read, let alone what I thought of it. Why? Because I've been contracted by a magazine to do a series of reviews, and I'm not allowed to say what I'm working on.

Gives it all an air of mystery, eh?

But I don't want to leave you hanging, so I'll take this post to remind you that Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat, which was book 18 of 52 in this series (and reviewed before its publication date), is now out. Enjoy!

You can also check out my article from today's Philadelphia Inquirer about commuting from Philadelphia to NYC -- that article is here.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Weekend Wandering: Sweet Valley High

In honor of my review about a Sweet Valley Twins book:



There's so much I could comment about -- the gratuitous bikini shots; Jessica's 'hussie' tendencies; the awesome stereotypical-ness of Lila and Winston. You gotta see it to believe it.

I barely remember this show. But the time it aired in 1994, I was moving out of my Sweet Valley High phase -- that, or I didn't want to ruin the picture I had of these people by watching the show. The show ran for seven seasons -- for an episode list, click here.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

On Covers

Allison Winn Scotch -- she of one of the 'back of the head' covers -- writes on Writer Unboxed about having different hardcover and paperback images. Check out the article here.

Speaking of those back of the head covers...Ron Hogan over at Galleycat linked my post on the topic, and asked his readers for more. He got quite a few. Check out his posts about it here here here here here and here.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Book 45 of 52: LoveHampton by Sherri Rifkin

I have never been to the Hamptons, but I get exactly what Sherri Rifkin is writing about in LoveHampton. Because if you change "Hampton" to "Avalon" and you've got your typical summer rental at the Jersey shore.

If you haven't noticed, I wrote a book about the South Jersey Shorethat's coming out in less than a month. I did most of my research last summer while living in Avalon, NJ, with about a dozen complete strangers. Most were in their 30s, and most acted like college kids on the weekends. It was fun, it was exhausting, but it was nothing short of a wild ride, especially while trying to write a book at the same time.

LoveHampton is about essentially the same setup albeit on a higher price scale (the main character pays $7,500 for her summer share. I paid far less than half of that for mine).

In this Miller's story -- that being Tori Miller of the book, not me -- she's bouncing back from a major slide that started when her perfect boyfriend dumped her. So for two years, she wandered around in the worst possible fashion (Old Navy cargo pants. Gasp!) and spent more time in front of the TV than actually trying to replace said perfect boyfriend. She's then used as fodder for the pilot of a Queer Eye-esque makeover show that's never supposed to air. They help her get enough guts (plus free clothes, makeup and hairstyle) to go ahead and give it a go in a Hamptons summer share. Her reaction to all that booze and boys is not what she expected -- she's Tori at home and becomes Miller at the Hamptons. Reconciling the two isn't exactly easy.

Of course there's romance, friendship and backstabbing, but that's part of the fun, which is why I read this as a potential beach book. Mark this one as a little silly and predictable but entertaining -- and a quick read to boot.

So how did I pick this out of the stack of 70 sitting in my living room? Because the book opens with the Summer House Guidelines, and it was enough to make me laugh, and keep going. Examples:

"You will not be refunded for unused time, so like they say about the FLEX plan, use it or lose it."

"Please keep common areas neat and clean up after yourself. It shouldn't be that hard to put your glasses and dishes in the dishwasher."

"If you see that we're running low on anything, please write it down on the list I will be posting on the refrigerator. NB: Food, alcohol and Red Bull are not included."

The unwritten rules, which are used throughout the book, are right on, too, like about not hooking up with roommates until after August 1 for fear of messing up house dynamics. Does everyone adhere to these rules? Not really. I know of three pairs that broke it in my house share (guilty as charged). And not every followed that dish rule. Come to think of it, I'm not sure if anyone did.

I was in a good house, though. Everyone was kind and friendly, and even though I knew no one going in, I was included in all the parties and events. I still talk to a lot of people in the house now, and rely heavily on one for article sources (hi Courtney!)

I can't say I totally transformed from Jen into Miller while part of my Avalon shore house, but I was more relaxed there and probably more outgoing because, to just about everyone, I was new and could start new. I was ready to go back home by September, though. A gal can only 'pre-game' so much. Here's the bar:



And that's on a low night. I hadn't seen that much alcohol in one place since college -- and that's not even counting what was in the fridge. Fun, but tiring (which is why I'm still not sure if I'll go in on a house this summer. We'll see...)

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Book 44 of 52: Sweet Valley Twins: Teacher's Pet

"So are you an Elizabeth or a Jessica?"

Such was one of the more important questions that separated the girls of St. Francis de Sales grade school. If you were a Jessica, go to side A. Elizabeth, side B.

"Even though the two sixth-grade girls both had long blond hair that glinted in the sunlight, aquamarine eyes, and tiny dimples in each left cheek, they were really very different. Jessica liked to talk about boys and clothes, and always wanted to have as much fun as possible. Elizabeth liked more serious things -- reading and writing and long talks with a good friend."

You can guess which one I was. And still am.

My mom recently cleaned out her attic, and gave me boxes of books to sort through. One was full of Sweet Valley Twins books. I was obsessed with the adventures of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield for a solid 10 years, starting with the twins, moving into the high school years and then onto the Legacy books, which were probably what you could call a gateway drug into my Nora Roberts obsession, which I wrote about for book 21 of 52.

I wanted to keep the books, but what use did I have for them now? So I took book, two, Teacher's Pet and the rest went to the library where maybe some girl too wholesome for Gossip Girl will enjoy the plight of one twin vs. the other.

The major conflict here was who would get to dance the solo in the recital. It's quickly obvious that Jessica is the better dancer, but she shows up like a hussie to the first recital, which instantly makes the teacher dislike her.

OK, no one says "hussie" in Sweet Valley, but judge for yourself:

"Jessica thought back to the first day of ballet class. She had wanted to make a good impression on Madame that day, she she'd dressed up in a new purple leotard and purple leg warmers, and pinned her hair back with barrettes that had purple ribbons hanging from them. She'd eve put on some makeup so that Madame Andre would be sure to notice her. Madam had certainly noticed her. A look of shock had crossed her face when Jessica entered the room. In front of everyone Madame scolded her for showing off."

Of course Madam loves Elizabeth. She is a model student and brainiac, which is of course why I would answer "Elizabeth" to that initial question. She was also a writer for the middle school paper -- and even though I didn't know I wanted to be a writer at the time, I toyed around with writing short stories on my mom's typewriter (usually Sweet Valley knock offs) and always read, even if Sweet Valley wasn't exactly taxing. I still remember the first time I read one of the books in a day -- I had started reading on the beach, took it back to the campground pool, and after showers while waiting for dinner, turned the last page. I was amazed. And thought reading it had been way too easy, which is when I switched to the Sweet Valley High series. I considered it the epitome of sophistication that I was only in middle school when I jumped up a Francine Pascal level. I reached its height at the Legacy series, which even had references to sex. Grown up stuff!

Two more random memories: There were twins in my grade school class. One girl copied the summary of the book for her book report. And I turned her in. Yes, I was a snitch. Another group of girls tried to form a Unicorn Club within our grade -- the same kind of snobby clique that Jessica belonged to in the book. A requirement of being in the Unicorn Club was that you had to wear one purple thing a day. That didn't exactly work with Catholic School uniforms.

Ever since Francine Pascal (who didn't write all the books but created guidelines for ghostwriters) did an interview with Bust magazine back in spring 2005, there's been talk of a Sweet Valley Heights series with the girls in their 30s. That name has since been changed to Sweet Valley Confidential, but I can't find any more information about it. Maybe it'll come out in time for my 30th birthday.

I scouted around online to find the same cover photo that my book has. This is what the cover is now. I think I like the old one.

So do you have any Sweet Valley memories? Or were you a Babysitter's Club kind of person? I never got into the latter, or the R.L. Stein stuff. What about you?

**UPDATE** None other than Sarah Weinman wrote a piece for New York about the 'update' Sweet Valley High books. You can read that here. A sample:

"Aping the latest trends, on the other hand, not only pins the girls to our own uncomfortable era but also invokes moments of head-shaking at the SVH czars' lack of pop-culture perfect pitch — as when Winston Egbert establishes his geek cred by invoking Heroes. Oh my, no. Winston Egbert would so obviously watch Battlestar."

Thanks to reader Stephanie for pointing that out!

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Weekend Wandering: You're a Good Mom



Jen Singer, author of You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either) will be a guest on my Down the Shore with Jen blog on Monday, so here's here book trailer. I'll post a link when the Q&A goes live!

Read more at mommasaid.net.

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Friday, April 4, 2008

Subscription Reminder

Scared you're going to miss a post? Then drop your email in the "subscribe" box on your left. You'll be send a little reminder asking you if you really really really really want to sign up to get "Book a Week with Jen" in your inbox (of course the answer will be yes), and then, around 7am EST on days after I post, you can enjoy a little bit of the book world with your morning coffee!

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Book 43 of 52: Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian by Scott Douglas

This book could have been funny. If you've ever spent a lot of time in a library, you know that they can be strange places with even stranger patrons. That's why I was psyched to start reading this book.

Unfortunately, Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarianwasn't exactly funny, even though it tries. Sure, there were a few humorous patches about Douglas' life as a librarian in Anaheim, and I did appreciate the chance of getting behind the counter with someone who's about my age. But the writing is what sapped the life out of the story. That, and the footnotes.

It's a classic case of showing versus telling, something that I read the best description about in Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction, book 27 of 52.

An example: "Pearl arrived next. She was fifty by dressed thirty, had messy brown hair, and walked with a skip in her step." Ok, but how was she fifty and dressing thirty? What exactly did she wear? And "skip in her step"? Sure, it evokes a youthful image, but it's a flat cliche.

Douglas spends a lot of time describing the crazy people who come into the library, but he never quite give a sharp image of any of them so that most of the book turns into an endless string of Douglas talking about one crazy person or another.

Another example: "Some people are justifiably crazy. They do something stupid, but they have a reason, no matter how stupid that reason is. Some people are just plain crazy. They have no reason for their insanity." And the point is?

It's also littered with footnotes -- sometimes three on two back to back pages. And some of them seem pretty pointless. Example: "Sometimes a kid would come up" Footnote: "It was usually a boy, a fact you don't need to know." You're right. I didn't need to know that.

It's a book that tries too hard to make you laugh. It also lacks a timeline. There's a loose outline of a plot -- moving from an old library to a new library then back to the rebuilt old library -- but it disappears through most of the second half of the book to create a wandering series of "my adventures" at the library. Too bad. I always wanted to know what life at a library was like.

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Recommendation: Oil on the Brain

While I slog through the next book in the series, you might want to check out Lisa Margonelli's Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank. It follows gas from the gas station to South America. It's a fascinating, funny and sometimes depressing look at where we get our oil. I couldn't help by think of it yesterday when I read reports about Big Oil's day in front of congress. If you wanted to cut your oil consumption before, you'll really want to do it after reading this book.

From my St. Pete Times review:

"In Chad, for example, where Exxon has invested $3.7 billion in oil development, children do their homework by sitting outside Exxon’s security lights at night because they have no electricity. More than $300 billion in oil has been pulled from Nigeria, but some villages have no schools, no hospitals. Well, the buildings are there – Shell built them, but didn’t provide the people to make the buildings functional. Without staff or teachers, the school and the hospital are shut down and crumbling. It’s no wonder some Venezuelans call oil 'the devil’s excrement.'"

Read more at www.oilonthebrain.com.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Ask and Yee Shall Receive Some More


Looks like I was too early in snapping that picture of books under consideration for summer beach reads. My poor UPS/FedEX/postman.

If you've ever wondered why it's so hard for a book to get review attention, this is just a sliver of an example. I usually go to Book Expo America and see thousands of books all jockeying for attention. And some people think we don't read anymore...

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