Monday, December 27, 2010

Review: Concierge Confidential

I took Concierge Confidential by Michael Fazio (with Michael Malice) on vacation, and it turned out to be the kind of book you want to take on a trip. It's light, it's gossipy, and it gives an inside peek into the concierge system and how they can get you those dinner reservations when the place is supposedly booked up.

Fazio was a concierge at a big hotel in New York, and then later ran his own concierge company, which serviced apartment and condo buildings. What started as an escape from Hollywood turned into a career of what he found he did best: service.

I read this book while staying in a hotel in DC that left a message on the bed saying they were going to shut down the power for four hours overnight and gave guests a glowstick to guide us around the room if we needed it. Really? That's service? Didn't seem to match what Fazio said about it.

It's nothing that's brain bending, but a good, quick read. I picked up some tips on how to ask for hotel upgrades, too.

I also appreciate that he put his writing partner on the cover because I have a feeling that the OTHER book I read this week, which was a meh 'celebrity' memoir, was written by a ghost writer who got no credit. Now, I know that ghost writing contracts are all different, but it irked me.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A plan comes together

I was ready to write a short review of the latest book I reviewed for American Way magazine, but then I pitched the author to Runner's World since he writes a lot about running. Ding ding ding! Got that assignment too, so I'm not allowed to say who I'm writing about. What I will say, though, is that he's incredibly funny and wrote diaries so interesting that I couldn't put the book down - not easy to do when those diaries are almost 600 pages.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Notes from the book reviewer's office

I'm deep into a very long and twisting book that I'm reviewing for an inflight magazine. I love it, but it's time consuming. So in the meantime, some updates from other corners of my book-related world:

1. I finished the NaNoWriMo challenge! It's when a lot of crazy people attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. I did it. But it's not edited - for anything, not even spelling. I started out with three different plots. I jump from first to third person and then back to first again. It ended up being a young adult book about an American girl who has split her time between Tampa, FL and Oxford because her mum is American and her dad is British. In the year after high school graduation, she goes to live with her father. Lots of confusion and running and boys. It's really bad. But that challenge was worth it. I'm trying to write fiction again, and this forced me to sit down and just write.

2. My first book review for American Way magazine, which is the inflight magazine of American Airlines, is in the December 1 issue.

3. I'm doing my annual book clear out. I go through all the galleys and books and samples that have been sent to me over the year, and get rid of what I know I'll never use. They go either to the library, my cousin, or a college friend in Boston. This might sound shocking. But I can't possibly ever read or use everything that's sent my way, and sometimes I get two or even three copies of a book. I do mean clean outs whenever books start to overtake my office, but this is the big one. Books that don't make the cut? Novels that aren't something I'd read in my free time. Vampire books. Anything about how to get skinny or get rich quick. A lot of how to date books go, too. I'm sure there are books here that I would like to read, but I know I won't have time.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Review: Sweet Valley Confidential

You'll notice that the picture used for this post isn't the usual plain cover image that I'd usually use for a book. I've taken a picture of my copy of Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later
because I think the level of security being put around preview copies of this book is just silly.

A refresher: Sweet Valley High was a mega book series targeted about Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, two gorgeous "perfect size six" 16 year old twins from the fictional town of Sweet Valley in Southern California. These books were packed with melodrama, romance and more melodrama.

I started reading Sweet Valley Twins, which were about the girls in middle school, while I was a tween and quickly jumped up to the high school series. I remember the first time I read a book in a day. I started with the latest Wakefield twins adventure on the beach, and finished as my mom was cooking dinner that night.

I could do that because these books aren't heavy. They were brain candy. I'd switch between Sweet Valley and Edgar Allen Poe. I do the same thing today, as evidence by the occasional Nora Roberts novel thrown in among whatever else I read and review here.

So I was jazzed to hear that a new Sweet Valley book was coming out, dropping in on the twins when they were 27.

A lot of women my age are excited for the series, too. Apparently the publisher thinks that so many are ravinous for this book, which will be published on March 29, 2010.

Look closely at the picture. You'll see the number 117 written in the top left hand corner. That's not part of the title. It was hand written onto the book in black marker. The number 117 was also written on the title page, the first page of the first chapter, and on the first page of the final chapters.

This is to prevent reviewers from selling copies on eBay. That's my guess.

I understand that there's a demand for this book, but...c'mon. It's not the next Harry Potter. It's the next installment of a silly melodrama.

I can't say too much about the actual book because of that assignment, though I will say that I wish they'd given this reboot a chance as another series instead of stuffing updates about every single Sweet Valley High classmate into one book. Part of me likes the twins better when they're stuck in the '80s. The "perfect size six" was taken out - I guess they didn't want to tackle the issue that they'd have to be "perfect size zeros" these days. A howl went up on the internet when all those "perfect size six" lines were changed to "perfect size four" in 2008 for new editions of the books.

Yes, there is a curiosity about the new book, but I don't think the book needs this level of security. But maybe I'm underestimating the rabidness of Sweet Valley fans.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Notes on Nora - and beyond

A few notes:

1. As promised, I picked up Nora Roberts' Happy Ever After after reading the Franzen book. It was OK. I think the series could have been a trilogy instead of a quartet but then I would have only bought three books, not four. I don't think it's worth a full post. What else could I say that I haven't already been said? Roberts is a juggernaut, and even if she writes brain candy, I like brain candy every now and again.

2. Speaking of juggernauts, I'm currently reading Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later. It's for an assignment for an inflight magazine. I can't even even tell you how many Sweet Valley books I read as a kid (I included one in my book a week series), so I'm excited about this. Apparently, the publisher thinks there's a huge demand for this preview copy as they've marked it up beyond belief to prevent reviewers from selling the galley. I'll write further when I finish reading the book.

3. I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month, where a bunch of loons try to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. The book I'm writing is utter crap, but it's a good exercise. I've been trying to get back into fiction writing, and being force to sit down and write almost every day is a good way to get back in the habit. Maybe. We'll see what comes out at the end of November.

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


Took me for what felt like forever to review Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. It's "the" book of the fall - not only has Franzen been on EVERY NPR show promoting the book (yes, even Marketplace), but Oprah anointed it as part of her book club, which is odd given this fight they had about Franzen's last book, The Corrections.

I can see why Oprah made it a pick. The book is about one family, told from multiple points of view from every family member but the main couple's daughter. The narrative focuses around the mother, Patty, who grew up to liberal NY-based parents and escaped what she considered her odd family on a basketball scholarship to Minnesota. There she makes best friends with a manipulative elf of a woman, and is introduced to two men who will greatly affect the course of her life, from college through middle age.

It's a political book, too, with much of the narrative focused around a post 9/11 world and the Iraq war.

It's a good book, but I think I'm going to need to read it again in a few years. It's still not my favorite Franzen book - that would be How to Be Alone, which is a collection of superb essays.

I wish I had more to say, folks, but that's it for now. Is it bad that I'm excited for the cheesy romance novel I have up next? Well at least I admit it.

I'm also participating in Nanowrimo, which is a project where a whole bunch of crazy people set out to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. I'm about 15,000 words in. It's a lot of crud - and makes me understand why Franzen worked on this book for 10 years. This stuff's hard.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: The Year of Living Biblically

I'd meant to readThe Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possiblewhen it was published in 2007, but never got around to it. It was published during the whole stretch where my grandfather died, I started writing a book and went through a crushing breakup. Reading a book about the Bible wasn't exactly on the top of my priority list.

But I'm glad I finally got around to the book where A.J. Jacobs tries to live according to the Bible for a year. It's silly in parts, like him not shaving for a year, wearing all white, and the whole rules about how he's not supposed to share a bed with his life when Aunt Flo's around. It's more serious, though, than I expected and Jacobs is really changed by the experience. Even though he remains agnostic (not really a spoiler, so calm down), his view of the world has changed, and he seems to reach a spirituality that has little to do with God but more with seeing the world in a different way and appreciating why people believe in religion.

It also felt a little bit like a throwback. The book came out when stunt books were popular. Jacobs' first book was about reading the encyclopedia. I don't see as many of these now because how many times can you live in a retirement community as a young adult or live your life according to everything Oprah says? Apparently, when that well ran dry, the publishing industry turns to vampires.

So - good read, even though the trend of stunt memoirs is drawing to a close. Or maybe not - maybe a vampire living according to the Bible?

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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh

I was surprised at myself when I bought Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purposeby Tony Hsieh. I'm not that big into business books. I shop at Zappos.com (of course), but I wouldn't call myself a devotee.

But I like what they do - which included giving me a credit for a pair of gloves that had fallen apart three months after purchase - and a few people recommended the book, so I gave it a read while going to and from New York today.

Not a bad read. It explains a completely different business point of view than what I'm used to, especially now that I have ended my career as a full time freelance writer. Hsieh writes that by focusing on the people who work at the company, and having a core set of company values, your business can really take off WITHOUT maximum profit being the bottom line...though those moves certainly help grow a business.

When I was freelancing full time - up until about two months ago - I felt like a commodity that had to be "bought" at the lowest price possible. Editors and publishers cut word counts, cut rates, treated me worse than I've ever been treated before. I felt like I was being spit on by some of them through vile-packed emails.

How do they expect to keep good, dependable skilled writers if that's how they treat us? The argument that they could get someone else to do it cheaper didn't help either. After five and a half years of freelancing full time, I took a full time marketing job and went back to freelancing part time.

Toward the end of that career, I realized that writing was not fun anymore. It did not make me happy. It did not give my any sort of financial security, and my "product" suffered. Maybe that's why this book spoke out to me, both as someone who was caught in a dozen tiny profit focused machines (magazines and newspapers) and as someone who was producing what became an inferior product.

I'm not saying that the job I have now will also be my final employment stop, but it gives me the flexibility to write what I want to write again. I'm working again on a novel. I'm writing on this blog again, and today I spent the day wandering New York City with a former college classmate. I'm writing an article about him for our college alumni journal. I wasn't worried about how much I was going to make per hour. I wasn't worried about all the other assignments I had to do. My only concern was being in that moment of catching up with an old friend, and making sure I had the information to write the best piece possible.

Somehow that relates to this book. It's a quick read, too. Great pick up.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review: Admission by Jean Hanff Korlelitz

I was sitting in a very boring faculty meeting at the University of Tampa when my college advisor slid a file folder across the table.

I thought it might be a notes for an upcoming story (I was editor of the college newspaper, which is why I was at said very boring meeting) or something for my professor's Shakespeare class, but it was my college application. I don't remember why he had it, but I do remember being horrified by my essay. I think Tampa got the one about how I looked up to my older brother, which is a fine thing to write about, but that essay I'd labored over as a high school senior looked amateurish to a college junior.

"How did I even get accepted?" I whispered to my advisor.

"They were letting everyone in that year," he said, and laughed.

He wasn't exactly lying. Tampa did go on a big "recruitment" kick, which I took to mean letting in almost everyone with a pulse. I didn't want to go to Tampa. I wanted to go to Boston University, but my parents were divorcing the year I graduated high school and I was told they didn't have the money, so I was going to Tampa, which threw buckets of money in my direction (I'd guess more for my grades and SAT scores than my essay). Of course, 17 year old me was livid. How dare they squash my dreams of becoming a marine biologist and moving to Australia to work on the Great Barrier Reef?

It's okay to want to smack 17 year old me. I think I'd want to hit her too.

I'd forgotten about the faculty meeting incident until I started reading Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, which is a novel about Portia Nathan, an admission officer for Princeton University. The book isn't so much about the inner workings of an admissions office (though there's plenty of that), but about Nathan, who is stuck in a rut until she's rudely pushed out and forced to find a new direction. Each chapter begins with the snippet of a fictional essay (Hanff Korelitz worked as a part-time reader for Princeton in 2006 and 2007) that looked very much like my essay about my brother.

The book is slow to start, and I almost gave up. I brought six books with me on vacation, and figured I might find something for apt for beach chair reading. But about half way through, I caught onto the story. It's beautifully written, too, so even in the slow parts, the rich language could be enough to pull you through.

I applied to Princeton for graduate school and didn't get in (nor was I admitted to 12 other English Liteature PhD programs). This I forgot, too, until I read Admission. That rejection might have been the best thing to happen to me. I'd be locked in a room somewhere preparing lesson plans for bored college students or writing some scholarly essay that three people would read. My life would have been a lot different if my parents did let me go to BU, too. Amazing how what seems awful at the time works out. Hopefully that's something high school seniors will keep that in mind when their admissions letters start rolling in.

One more note: this summer, I'm revising and updating a book I wrote three years ago. Gah. I feel like that college junior reading my high school essay all over again. I guess the good news is that the more I write, the better I get. Maybe I'll think the same thing if I look over this post three years from now.

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Review: Broke, USA by Gary Rivlin

For two years, I've written about personal finance for a few websites - first interest.com and cyberhomes.com, then bankaholic.com and now bankrate.com, creditcards.com and a few custom publications. I'm not financially savvy person and certainly wasn't when I started on this beat, but as I worked up from shorts to full blown features about deceptive practices of the credit card industry, I developed a stronger grasp on why money is such a complicated thing for so many people, especially because the deck is stacked against them.

Gary Rivlin's Broke, USA
shows how that deck is stacked in the favor of people who have realized how to exploit the poor. He looks into how payday lenders, pawn shops, check cashers and rapid tax refunders have sliced into the earnings of people who can least afford it, and the subprime mortgage crisis where he says the greed of a few caused harm to so many.

It's a bleak story, and probably not what most people would read on the first few days of their vacation, but that's what I did - the week the Federal Consumer Protection Bureau became a reality, at least by law so far.

The book is fascinating and frightening, though the narrative is slow and sometimes boring. I told a friend it reminded me of The End of Overeating, which was full of information that I think people should know but did not have a narrative that would pull almost any reader through (see Born to Run, Omnivore's Dilemma as examples of books that achieved that).

I don't know if that would stop people from finishing the book. I know I have an interest because of my work. But if you've ever wanted to learn why the poor stay poor, read this book. It's a painful eye opener.

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review: The Mighty Queens of Freeville

I picked up Amy Dickinson's The Mighty Queens of Freeville because it was on the display table at Barnes & Noble, and I've heard the title about a thousand times. Dickinson, aside from being the Amy behind the "Ask Amy" advice column, is sometimes a panelist on NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me. I listen to the podcast every Sunday while either running or cleaning. I'm fortunate enough to have played a round on the show and won Carl Kasell's voice on my home answering machine (or iPhone, in my case).

I always assumed that the book was about misers. Freeville sounds thrifty, right? Dickinson is funny on the show, so I gave it a shot.

The women in this memoir are thrifty, but that's not the point of the book. Freeville, New York is where Dickinson's clan is based, and the book is about the women in her family, most of whom were left by their husbands. Dickinson's father walked out after he mortgaged her mother's farm, which left them with nothing. One of the saddest passages is when the repo men come to take the cows away.

I liked the book, and I read it in two days. It's not perfect, and sometimes the essays overlap and repeat information she already shared. But what she has to say about women and the power of female relationships stuck with me, as did her story of women who did not follow the traditional marriage>children pattern, whether they wanted to or not.

I thought about this a lot today, for a stupid reason: I renewed my passport. I didn't know that you had to turn the old one in to do so. I love my old passport, which I got right before I left the U.S. to study in England in early 2001. The 20 year old in that picture is so fresh faced and excited about everything. Why wouldn't she be? She was about to live overseas! She wasn't even a senior in college and didn't need to worry about what she'd do with the rest of her life.

I'm turning 30 in less than two weeks. What would she say if she saw me now? My chosen industry is collapsing around me. My sister and sister in law are both pregnant. I don't even have a boyfriend. Would 20 year old me be upset? Would she worry that all the work she'd put in between then and now would be for nothing?

I hope not. I'd tell her that I have a great life. I wrote a book, bought a house and got a dog - slightly crazy dog, but dog who thinks I'm the best thing in the ENTIRE WORLD. I've written for news outlets I never dreamed would even call me back, especially after that awful internship in Washington DC where I landed one story on the cover of a Texas newspaper but spent most of my time in the National Gallery of Art (take THAT guy who said I'd never be a journalist - who covered the World Series parade for the New York Times, huh?) I survived a wretched breakup that at 20 I never could have handled. I still sometimes hate how I look, but it's not as often, and I've learned to accept that having hips is a GOOD thing. I'd also tell her that some people she watched in envy as they walked down the aisle - including that college roommate she has at 20 - wouldn't be together anymore at the time I am now, and the whole relationship thing is a lot more difficult than she imagined - but that's OK. It SHOULD be complicated. It SHOULD be hard because, for it to work, it can't be like anything she sees in movies or reads about in magazines (magazines that she'll realize are junk by her mid-20s). I'd also tell her that she learns to stand on her own two feet, which makes those hard times easier to handle.

So back to Freeville. I liked seeing how Dickinson's story played out and that even after her husband left her with an infant to run off with his secretary, she had a great life. A fantastic one as did the other women in her family who'd been dealt a bad hand.

So what will my 40 year old self think of me? Will I ever be that old? (As I'd say to my 20 year old self - yes).

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Review: Sima's Undergarments for Women

Sima's Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger-Ross is one of the handful of books I picked up at Book Expo America. The rep from Penguin Publishing described it as a quirky little book.

That's exactly what it is, and another book I'd nominate as a beach read (boy, is there a bumper crop of those this year - that or I'm reading a lot more fiction).

The book is about Sima Goldner, a middle aged woman who owns a lingerie shop in the basement of her Brooklyn home. The story gets moving when she hires a beautiful Israeli woman, Timna, as her seamstress. Having a gorgeous young woman in her shop forces Goldner (or at least Ilana Stranger-Ross in telling the story) to revisit her infertility, and how that one thing she couldn't do - have children - has dominated her life, torn apart her marriage and put a big black rain cloud over her head. For decades.

I've never been a very maternal person. I don't coo at babies, and save for literally a week in my early 20s, never had a strong desire to have a baby. I didn't think I would sympathize with Simna, but I did. Stanger-Ross made her sorrow so real, especially in the flashbacks to when Simna was tested to find out why she couldn't have children. They tests they performed her were horrific, even worse than the word the doctor used to describe her: barren.

So even though it's a novel, it was a history lesson, too, about women's health and another generation's gender roles, and how a little communication can change someone's point of view. Very interesting read.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Review: Rich Boy by Sharon Pomerantz

I've written about a lot of beach books coming out this year - fantastic reads that I'd recommend again. But they've all been trumped by Rich Boy by Sharon Pomerantz, which I'm naming my top beach read of the summer. If you're going down the shore for a week in August, get this, and plan to be stuck in your beach chair.

It's about Robert Vishniak, a boy from Northeast Philadelphia who dreams of more - much more than his working class parents, in their tiny row home and penny pinching ways, could ever dream of offering him. He's the first in his family to go to college, which should be a good thing, but he ends up chasing the one thing his parents didn't have: money. The novel is about how that one specific drive for that one thing can direct one man's life - well, two, if you count Robert's brother Barry. It's a long and winding novel, and completely engrossing and, yes, sad.

I grew up in the Philadelphia area, and know a lot of people from the Northeast, and can understand Robert's underlying motivation to do better. Pomerantz nails it there. Fantastically. My only quibble is that there are some factual errors in the chapter where the family goes to Atlantic City, and not small errors either. Even if you don't write about the Jersey Shore like I do, you'll probably pick them up, unless they are corrected by the time the final version prints (I have a galley).

But that's a small reason not to like the novel. Mark this one down. It's an excellent read.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Review: What I Know Now About Success

I'll go ahead and give What I Know Now About Success: Letters from Extraordinary Women to Their Younger Selvesa mixed review - not unusual for a book that's a collection of essays.

It's a collection of letters that successful women would write to themselves at a younger age. Some are inspiring and great reminders that failure can lead to success. Reading those were freeing - made me realize that I don't need to be stuck in what I'm doing now, and that I can do something radically different. I could, if I wanted, pick up and move and start over somewhere else. They're also reminders that I do not need to attach my value to a relationship. Being single is far better than being trapped by someone who isn't right for me.

But some of the essays...well. Did I really need to read about so many cosmetics company founders? All that BS about how cosmetics make people feel pretty is hard to swallow. I don't look up to a woman who introduced Chinese women to make up. Not at all. I skipped some of those cosmetics essays, and I'm not sure Suzanne Somers should be held up as a role model.

The book is hit or miss. But the hits? Worth reading.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Review: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

If you told me to read a book about a bunch of men who chased a way to find a logical foundation of mathematics, I'd suggest you didn't know me. I topped out at pre-calc and struggled with physics, so this isn't something I'd really like to follow up on in book form.

But that's what Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth is about. Why'd I read it? Because it's told in graphic novel form.

The book has two stories in one: the historical story of those men who tried to put logic into math, and then the authors of this book, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, putting the book together. Splicing the two stories together gave it more of a human element as opposed to "these guys tried to form a mathematical theory."

I know this isn't very clear, but it's hard to explain. You need to see it - literally - to get it. Reading Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth in graphic novel form made the information more accessible.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Beach Reads!

If you haven't caught on, I do a version of this "summer beach reads" story every year, but it works. Why? Because new books are always published, and people always want something to read while sitting on the sand.

This year, I wrote the piece for New Jersey Monthly along with one of my editors, and we picked books that all have some connection to New Jersey. Two I've reviewed here already on the blog: Simply From Scratch by Alicia Bessette and The Edge of Ruin by Irene Fleming.

If you're looking for more beach reads, I suggest you check out the piece, or scroll through the reviews I've written here over the last six months. Many of those books are now out on bookshelves, and well worth a look.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Review: Unfinished Business by Lee Kravitz

Unfinished Business could be a book in what will be an emerging trend in 2010 and 2011: the lay off book.

When Lee Kravitz was laid off from his job as editor of Parade Magazine, he lost part of his identity. He had worked so long and so hard at work that he forgot to be a human being. So he went on a year-long journey to reconnect with people from his past and, as the title suggest, taking care of unfinished business, from telling a favorite teacher "thank you" to finding what happened to a mentally disabled aunt.

It's a fascinating read, and an example of how anyone's life can be interesting. It had me looking at some unfinished business in my life, too, and asking who I'd visit or track down if I had a year to do it. My story would be a little bit different (Kravitz, after all, is of the AARP generation), but it could be worth looking into in honor of my 30th birthday, which is happening this year, and the cross-country trip I might make after the big day.

So will this be a trend? The "I lost my job during the great recession so I wrote a book?" Maybe. I'm going to Book Expo America at the end of the month, which is a great way to see what's next. Who knows. Maybe it'll be the next "zombie book."

I know I promised to review that latest Nora Roberts book, but it wasn't much different than everything else she's written, and I'm kinda tired (it was that kind of weekend!) Sorry, folks.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Review: Daring to Dream by Nora Roberts

I've chronicled my love of Nora Roberts books on this site before. They are a wonderful escape valve for me, especially in times of stress. Now is one of those times, so I was jazzed to find out she had a new book coming out in April 27 (which will be the next review after this one).

But at the time, April 27 was too far away, so I dove into my library and pulled out what might have been the first Roberts book I ever read: Daring to Dream, originally published in 1996. It's the first in a trilogy I have read twice already, and I knew the characters well: Margo, the daughter of the housekeeper who at 18 years old fled to chase her dream and become a fashion model in Europe; Josh, the heir to the Templeton resort and hotel fortunate - and son of the family that kept Margo's mother as the housekeeper. When Margo is caught in a drug scandal and realizes she's broke, she comes back home. Sparks fly between the two. They have sex, they fight, they live happily ever after.

Typical Roberts, but can I admit something? This book frustrated me. Maybe it's because Roberts is a better writer now, or maybe I've read this too many times before, but all the nonsense of descriptions about the Templeton's fabulous wealth, and the strength of female friendships was annoying. It's also fabulously out of date. Homes along the cliffs of California cost, apparently, only $350,000. Margo's the perfect fashion model at a size 8, and she smokes - indoors - constantly. This was also in Roberts' "hair curling slightly over the collar" phase for men. Thank God the mullets are gone.

I almost put this aside once I had my hands on the new book, but I stuck with it through a very sunny Saturday on the beach. It's a good reminder that even writers I've enjoyed get better over time - a key lesson for me to remember as I continue with my writing and try to approve.

But I'll do without the smoking and mullets, thank you very much.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Review: Strathmere's Bride

I'm my "other life," I'm a travel writer, with much of my work focusing on the Jersey Shore. I've set up Google Alerts for the names of the shore towns in my region - Atlantic City to Cape May - so I can stay up to date on news.

One of those towns is Strathmere, and the Strathmere Google Alert kept sending me notices about Strathmere's Bride (Harlequin Historical, No. 479)by Jacqueline Navin, a Harlequin Historical romance novel about the Duke of Strathmere and the governess winding her way around his heart even though he's supposed to be marrying someone of a proper bloodline - or something like that.

So when I saw a copy for sale for $.75, I bought it, and I read it on the plane to and from Chicago this weekend.

It wasn't bad. I don't generally dig historical romances, but this one wasn't too couched in proving the author did her historical homework, and Chloe, the governess, was likeable. The Duke wasn't too prideful or mean, either, as heros in historical romances can be (a former popular plotline in these types of books books involved rape - thank God that's not popular anymore). For $.75 (plus shipping), it was a good buy, and kept me company on airplanes and in restaurants.

Yes, folks, a smart, professional woman can read a romance novel and not feel bad for it - really!

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Review: Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson

I won't say too much about Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic Citybecause I'm interviewing author Nelson Johnson on Thursday, and he's a key figure in an article I'm writing.

What I will say, though, is that if you ever wanted to understand political corruption and how these guys seem to get away with it, this is the book to read.

It's also a long history of Atlantic City, which I write about in my other life.
Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City also inspired the upcoming HBO series Boardwalk Empire, staring Steve Buscemi and directed by Martin Scorsese. That series starts on the day prohibition was enacted. The book Boardwalk Empire takes a much longer view, from the island's beginnings up until 2002.

Here's a preview:



It premiers in September, and It'll be something. Can't wait. You can read more about the book here.

Also - shout out to South Jersey. This book was published by Plexus Publishing, who I wrote about a zillion years ago when I first started freelancing. Ok, I wrote about them in 2002 (I think). Not a zillion years ago, but that's the same year this book came out. Go figure.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Review: I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson

Odd title, yes? But I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson isn't a horror story. It refers to what Stella the dog thinks whenever her owner leaves for the day. Until Paul returns, she thinks he's dead.

She does more than think this, though. Stella talks. Yes, a talking dog. You'd think this would make for a stupid book, but somehow, it works.

Paul is a writer for the Morons books - a fictional version of "for Dummies" or "Complete Idiot's" guide series. He's painted himself into a corner: he doesn't make much money, doesn't seem thrilled with his job. He's divorced, and his favorite bar is a dive where the locals hang out to get drunk together. He's dating a woman who splits her time between him and another boyfriend. Then his dad has a stroke. He's a sad sack, and his one constant respite is Stella the talking dog.

It's not like Stella talks to other people. She only talks to Paul. This isn't such a huge stretch. I talk to my dog, Emily, all the time. She doesn't talk back, of course, but I sometimes ask her questions that are too big to keep lodged in my head, and, yes, I wonder what she would say if she could talk. No person is in my presence as much as my dog. I'm sure she'd have some observations if she had Stella-like abilities.
I Thought You Were Dead is a sweet, sad story. I read most of it yesterday while recovering from a race. Since I had to work in the area the next day (today), I stayed at a hotel and my mom watched the dog. But I found myself reaching out to pet Emily while reading the book. I wonder what she'd say about that.

I'm feeling a bit like a sad sack myself, so this book came along at the right time. I'm reading a lot more fiction lately, too. Maybe it's because I'm on bad news overload and worry about the economy, the environment, whether or not I can keep things going in this writing career. I've had the same must-read non-fiction book on my to-read list for a month, but I can't bring myself to it. Fiction as a respite? Maybe. I'll ask Emily what she thinks.

P.S. A note about the marketing: The press release tucked inside the book made a big deal about how much indie booksellers loved the book. It's why I tucked it into my suitcase this weekend. Whoever came it with that strategy - IT WORKED.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: The Island by Elin Hilderbrand

Summer's coming - must be time for a new Elin Hilderbrand novel.

Full disclosure: a few years back, I wrote an article about Hilderbrand. She's lovely, writes the first drafts of her novels in long hand, loves Bruce Springsteen and Philadelphia. Part of that interview is blurbed on one of her book jackets. Small thrill since I like and her books so much.

But I didn't jump to read The Island: A Novel when I got a preview copy in the mail (or three - yes, they sent me three). Why? I'm a little tired of reading about Nantucket, which is where Hilderbrand bases her novels. I had a "can you hear my eyes rolling from all the way over here" moment. It sounds like a great place, but really? Another one?

Turns out I was wrong. Sort of. The book doesn't take place on Nantucket proper but on Tuckernut, a small island off the coast of Nantucket that is all privately owned. No shops or restaurants. No electricity, either, other than what you can get from your generator. No hot water, no phone, no cell phone reception. If you want supplies, you have to hire someone from the island to come to your house via boat.

The Island is about four women who go to the family's ancestral house on Tuckernut for the summer. They're two sets of sisters: India and Birdie, then Birdie's two daughters, Chess and Tate. Each woman has suffered a romantic loss, except for Tate. She comes to Tuckernut looking not only help her sister recover from a tragedy but maybe to finally catch the attention of Barrett, whose father was the guy who brought them supplies on the boat when Tate was a teenager.

The book's great - my second favorite written by Hilderbrand. Her best, I think, is still The Love Season. If you've never read it, please do. It's fantastic.

One reader said she's excited to read reviews of all these summer books but that I'm KILLING her by talking about great books that aren't out yet. Sorry, Sarah. Summer will be here soon enough - this one comes out in July 6.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Review: Simply from Scratch by Alicia Bessette

I don't even know where to start on this one. I have been stunned by Alicia Bessette's debut novel, Simply from Scratch, for a few reasons, and that's as good a place to start as any:

1. I know Alicia. I wrote about her husband, Matthew Quick, when HIS debut novel came out. They live in my town, both ran in the Collingswood Library Book Run that I also did, and I sometimes see Alicia out walking the couple's grayhound. She says she's seen me running around town, too. We had a lengthy discussion about my bright red arm sleeves, which are like long sleeves for running but without being attached to a shirt.

Where she ever found the ability to write about a recently widowed woman, I do not know. I've never been widowed or lost someone close to me who was not a grandparent, but she manages to write from such a deep well of grief for the main character, Rose-Ellen, whose husband is killed suddenly (I won't say how because that would ruin some of the plot techniques Bassette uses of sharing parcels of Nick's death along the way without saying exactly what happened until the end). The book picks up over a year after Rose-Ellen was widowed and is still in the depths of depression. I can't even tell you how many times I cried during this book, and still I have this feeling of a big black hole in my heart, a "what if" something like what happened to Rose-Ellen happened to me.

2. I didn't like the book when I started reading it. I got a copy of the book because I'm writing a piece about beach books written by New Jersey authors, so of course I wanted to consider Bassette's. I had no idea what it was about when I asked.

The first few chapters of the book is clunky, littered with adverbs and overwrought descriptions. But I stuck with the book, and it soon evened out. I read it while doing laundry. I read it before dinner. I put on a DVD after dinner but turned it off and stayed on my couch until I finished the book. Yes, it is THAT GOOD.

My only regret in telling you this is that the book doesn't come out until August. Her publicist rushed me an unfinished proof to read because of my deadline.

It could be that the intro that was a stumbling block to me will be smoother if you decided to give Simply From Scratch a go. And I suggest you do.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Book Notes: The Animal Review

This is a stupid book. But I mean that in the best way. It's stupid like Wren & Stimpy are stupid. It's stupid like Beevis & Butthead are stupid. But the authors, Jacob Lentz and Steve Nash, are real people.

In The Animal Review, they look at animals and grade them. A king cobra, for example, gets an A+. An alpaca, which I admit is a funny creature that I love in part because it looks odd, gets an F.

They use some science, and exaggerate a lot. I read a few entries and it made me laugh. I won't read it straight through. Instead, it'll go into my second "office." And you know what I mean.

You can read more on their book blog. One note: the cover you see here, which I pulled from bn.com, gives the alpaca a D- while the book I have on my desk gives it an F. Maybe the alpacas protested?

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review: Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English

Oh my, what a beautiful book. Lovely would work too. It sounds more English.

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English: A Novelby Natasha Solomons is a novel about Jack and Sadie Rosenblum, two Jewish Germans who immigrated to England before World War II. Because they left, they were both spared - but Sadie's family was not. Her sadness is a character in the book, it is that strong, and she fights to remember that family and her way of life before she was forced to leave.

Jack, though, doesn't try to remember. When the couple immigrated to England, he was given a pamphlet on how to be English. Not only does he follow every suggestion to the letter, but he adds onto the list as he sets up a business and becomes successful. One thing that he can't cross off the list? Being a member of a golf club. He's rejected from every one because he's Jewish.

What's Jack to do? Build his own course, of course. The book starts in London, but centers on Jack and Sadie moving to Dorset as he chases his golf course dreams - even though he's never played a round - and Sadie spars with her sadness and alienation.

It's a slow book and meant to be savored, which is why I took so long to finish. The descriptions of the country - oh, they left me yearning for spring and flung me back to my first bus ride through England from Heathrow Airport to Oxford, where I studied for a semester. The countryside stunned me out of my jet lag it was so beautiful. This book captures that perfectly, and I have to admit that I was a little stunned the author's only 29 years old. It seems like a book written by someone older and made wise by age (though the jacket copy says that the book is based on her grandparents).

The book comes out on June 21. Put it on your list. It's wonderful.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Review: The Body Shop by Paul Solotaroff

I've had a free subscription to Muscle & Fitness magazine for two years - a professional courtesy. It's stuffed with pictures of hugely muscular guys screaming, yelling, their muscles veiny and overwrought. A guy dressed as a spartan is on the cover. It's about as muscle worshiping a magazine as I've ever seen.

Everything in the publication is about how to build muscle and get lean naturally or with the help of supplements (and those ads are pretty scary). But in the back, in the classifieds, are text only ads about what look to be illegal ways of getting that same muscle mass. No matter how much Mark McGuire cries for forgiveness about using steroids, he still stacked millions upon millions of dollars for doing so, and guys still want to get big.

Paul Solotroff's The Body Shop is about the same thing: steroids, but in a far cruder form. He started juicing in 1976 as a college student, using something that was probably mixed up in a guy's basement sink. As a skinny Jewish guy desperate for girls to pay attention, getting big was a way to get them to look.

"The dockworker arms, with their bell-curve lines and vascular, shrink-wrapped skin; the rounded corners where the pectorals met and stood a little taller by the day--I had to keep checking my own reflection, touching and poking, rejoicing," he writes. "Even my face broadened, filled its own hollows, looked hand-carved, confident, ready."

But that's only the beginning. Throw in a dysfunctional father/son relationship AND mother/son relationship, and Solotroff was an easy mark to get hooked, first on steroids, then on drugs as he took his pumped up self back to New York and started stripping for cash with a shady band who kept sending him down the wrong coke-laced road.

Solotroff is a magazine journalist - unlike me, the the hard hitting kind (I lean toward features, something of which I'm not ashamed). Even though the book seems absurd, the writing is brilliant, vibrant. I can see him trapeezing through crime-rank New York, hitting the Jersey Shore to shake it for society women, losing it s the back alley stuff he's been shooting into his ass starts to uncoil him. Even though it's an engaging story, it turns tragic as Solotroff writes about what two years of stupidity did to him, and how it damaged him for life.

I knew a few guys in college who juiced. A roommate dated one of them, and one night after they got into a fight, our door was the victim of his friend's roid rage. I have never seen someone so completely unhinged. If he had managed to kick down the door, I fear what he would have done to her. It's scary.

So is The Body Shop, but it's well worth reading. As long as those shady adds continue to appear in fitness magazines, and kids are still offered the chance to get big fast, it's a must read.

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