Monday, December 26, 2011

On Romance Reading and Writing

I spent the week before Christmas on vacation in Providence, RI. Before hopping on that Amtrak train, I hit Barnes & Noble to stock up on a genre I'm further studying: romance novels.

It's a not-so-hidden secret that I'm a fan, and I've attempted to write one before, though half heartedly. This fall, I made major steps in that direction. I have 40-something pages of my first real shot at a novel almost done (the photo includes pages that are part of that manuscript), and I'll be submitting a sample from that book to a competition in January. I have a pen name picked out, too, but I don't know if I'll use it. More on that in another post.

While I've read romances and I'm a member of RWA, I've stuck to a few authors whose work I know I'll love, so for vacation, I went judging books by their covers, honing in on contemporary romance whose authors had hit the New York Times bestseller's list: Only His
by Susan Mallery and Coming Home
by Maria Stewart.

What I learned:

1. Both of these books are parts of larger series, and include more primary and sub characters that I'd ever seen in other types of fiction, even other types of romantic fiction. This makes sense from a sales point of view. If you get a reader hooked into the Fools Gold series or the Chesapeake Diaries, then they'll keep buying books in that series. So in my book, I've upgraded two of the minor characters to have slightly larger roles, and when I pitch this book to agents, I'll be marketing it as part of a series.

2. Geography is big. Both series are very tied to locations. The ties to that place is another factor in the book. I already had that (two guesses as to where the book is based haha), so I'm good there.

3. Willing suspension of disbelief. In Only His, the hero's company is building a casino. The mayor says that no one objected. Oh PLEASE. But it's not an important plot point because the book is focused on the people. The people!

4. This isn't quite what I want to write. I get the idea of multiple characters for series, but both books were a little bit too cluttered for me. I think Nora Roberts has handled this well - the heroine of the next book might be a prior book, but the hero rarely is. And the backstory of that minor character is only hinted at until she gets her whole book.

It's a good start, and a less than painful way to have conducted research while on vacation.

And if it sounds like I'm taking a very pragmatic, structured and studied entry into writing these kinds of books - well, I am. Why not!

So if you read romances, too, who are your favorites?

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Monday, December 5, 2011

On bad books

I was in New York this weekend on a two-day writing retreat, and brought a book I'd expected to review for along with me (I stayed in Red Bank, NJ, which meant I had some down time on the train to and from New York). But the book was so rotten that I emailed my editor and said I just couldn't do it - and this is a site that will list things that they hate.

Could I have done that for this book? Yes. I didn't, though, because I hadn't read the whole thing. Two chapters was enough. In order to do a proper "I hate it" review, I'd have to read the whole thing (yes, I have ethics!), and I didn't want to subject myself to that.

Two reasons why the book was bad:

1. It was written by someone who said they were an 'expert' on the topic, though she'd only been doing it for four years. Sorry, writer. Four years does not make you an expert on something as multi-level and complicated like this, especially when you write about the people who taught you - people who have decades of experience.
2. The writing sucked. Too many adjectives. Too many adverbs. Writing about details that did not matter - and then repeating them (lots of cigars and whiskey on the same page, explained the same way).

I should have guessed something was up when I saw that the book had an unusually large font. Bad Jen, bad. Her bio also touted that she'd written for X, Y and Z women's magazines. I should have known better on that front too. That means nothing, really.

I wasn't at a loss for reading, though. Beth Ciotta's Jinxed is a free ebook (for a limited time). I downloaded the Kindle app for my iPhone, got the book (all while sitting at a diner counter), and had to it read all weekend.

First time I ever "got" the convenience of an eReader. I don't know if I'll make the full on plunge because I'm very comfortable with reading on my iPhone. But maybe.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Let's talk about Eloisa James

I've been doing some book review for this site, which is very fun. I've also been plowing through two tomes on personal finance, which is not very fun. And then there's holiday and family stress, and I decided I needed a break.

This year, those kind of reading/mental breaks have been spent with Eloisa James.

Eloisa James is the pen name for Mary Bly, a Shakespeare professor at Fordham. I interviewed her back in 2009 for a story I wrote on the real lives of romance writers. I'd never read her books before, but included her because of her fun story, and because she lived in New Jersey. She was incredibly friendly and smart - a great interviewee. I read one of her books for the story, and enjoyed it, which surprised me because she writes historical fiction. Most of her books take place mostly in the Regency time period (1811-1820).

Historical romances were never really my thing, probably because my first experiences with these books were sneaking reads from the big tower of romance novels at the Camden County Library in the early 1990s. Most of those books are what Smart Bitches call Old Skool where the hero was such an asshole that he sometimes raped the heroine.

But the book I read - A Duke of Her Own
- and the novels thereafter - were really smart. No simpering heroines. These women usually said "eff you" to trends of the time period, and there's always some female character - whether the main one or someone in the supporting cast - who actually enjoy sex. Big different from ye olde historic romances of yore.

In When Beauty Tamed the Beast, which I just finished, Linnet Thynne is a beauty who is "ruined" because she flirted with the Prince. That in itself isn't so bad. But she showed up in public in a dress that made her look pregnant, so of course, everyone in the ton assumed she was a giant hussy, and since she was below the Prince in rank and he couldn't marry her, her father decides that she's worthless.

Until he meets with the father of Piers Yelverton, an earl she's told was harmed in a childhood accident and can't have children. So Linnet's father cooks up a plan to marry her off to Piers so that he'll have an heir, even if it's not his - and remember now that Linnet isn't even pregnant. He's also a surgeon and, apparently, not very nice. Hence the beast.

Linnet sees this to her advantage. She can get married (which she HAD to do in that time period) without having to sleep with her husband. Her mom slept around, so she figured she can too if she wants.

See? Not so typical.

Sure, there's some sex, but it's not the focus of the book, and it's more about two really different and stubborn people, and I learn something about a time period that I didn't know much about. And no one was raped. Take THAT Old Skool romances.

This doesn't mean I've given up on Nora Roberts. No way. But I'm up to date on most of her books (the ones I want to read - I don't like the books she writes as J.D. Robb). I bought a bunch of James book during the Borders going out of business sale. So whenever I need that break? There's a treat waiting for me in my library.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Four years later, an essay

If you've read Book a Week with Jen - the ebook or the blog - you know I kept referencing an essay I was writing about the person who dumped me, an event that was one of the things that lead to me starting the 52 books in 52 weeks project.

Four years later, here it is.

It's been completely rewritten, revised and rewritten again since I first wrote it, and I obviously updated it, but it's finally seeing the light of day. I wrote then that, if it were ever published, that "the sh*t would hit the fan." I don't think it will now. That great big thing called "time" and "perspective" have changed things, and gave me the space from the actual event to write an essay I felt like I could share.

It's not pretty, and part of me is still very embarrassed that I let myself get into that situation. But if this essay helps one other person, then it's worth it.

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Reading 2011

This came in the mail yesterday. Well, these. I'm starting to review books for a new website, and I called in a specific kind of book from publicists on my book PR list. I thought I'd get a few. Didn't think I'd require a crate.

I spent some time with Book a Week with Jen when I was turning it from a blog series into a book. One thing I realized is how little I write about books anymore compared to 2007-2008. A few reasons for this. First, my writing was deflected into travel writing when The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May was published - more than I could have imagined. It's now in its second edition, so I've spent a large chunk of my writing time on the shore in the last four years. I mean a really large chunk.

Second, there just aren't many book review outlets anymore. When Frank Wilson retired as the books editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, I lost my reviewing gig there (yes I tried, but that editor who took over his role has never gotten back to me). I did a few book related things here and there for women's magazines, but they're wretched to work for, and I don't agree with their overall 'message.' Every month, without FAIL, they will tell you that you're too fat, you're not please your man, and you'll die young, most likely of breast cancer.

I sometimes review for American Way magazine, but they're typically short. The biggest book-related piece I've done in years was for Runner's World.

I'm still reading, of course, but with no pattern or intention. It's a little weird.

I'm going to try blogging here more again. I don't think I'll do another Book a Week series, but who knows? Maybe.

Also! I'm a guest on Allison Winn Scotch's blog today, talking about ebooks.

'Book a Week with Jen: 1 Year, 52 Books, and a Year of Starting a New Chapter' is now an ebook! Buy it here.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Book a Week with Jen - now on sale!

"In 2007, freelance journalist Jen A. Miller got dumped, lost her grandfather, wrote a book and bought a house - all in a four month span. She couldn't run, she couldn't write, and spent most of her time lying on her office floor.

To break herself out of her depression, she decided to read 52 books in 52 weeks, and write about them all.

In Book a Week with Jen, Jen recovers from the worst year of her life by reading - everything from dating books written for men to foodie lit to running books to romance novels (and even an instruction guide to threesomes). Funny, inspiring, and full of essays about good books, Book a Week with Jen is how one writer used the power of reading to pull herself through to a brighter side."

It's finally here! The Book a Week with Jen eBook! Thanks to everyone who supported this project, both when I first started writing it in 2007 and those talented pros who helped the actual eBook happen.

I hope you enjoy it - and for only $2.99, it's a cheap and easy reading experience :-)

Buy it for your Amazon Kindle
Buy it as a PDF.
Buy it for your Nook
Buy it in any other eReader format, including those for iBook and Sony Reader.

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Friday, November 4, 2011

Book a Week with Jen: The ebook!

This blog isn't dead yet! In fact, it's now an ebook!

Well, partly. I don't want to say too much since the book's not actually on sale yet, but if you read this blog from the beginning, you'll be very familiar with what the book is about. More details soon!

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review: American Wife

This is a curious book. Joyce Carol Oates called Curtis Sittenfeld's third book, American Wife: A Novel, her most ambitious project. I might agree with her there. But I'm not sure I agree that the ambitionof this novel quite followed through.

American Wife is about Alice, a small town girl who lives a dull, normal life. As a teenager, she kills a classmate in a car accident. She eventually because a librarian. At 31, she meets Charlie Blackwell, a loveable but somewhat dim man who has inherited fortune as part of a well known political family name. They marry. They falter. He buys a baseball team. He drinks. He stops drinking. And he eventually becomes President of the United States.

Sound familiar? That's because Alice's story mimics that of former first lady Laura Bush. Sure, Charlie works in meat packing and lives in Wisconsin. But there is no way to not see the similarities, right on down to Laura causing the death of a classmate in a car accident.

Sittenfeld has openly proclaimed her love of Laura Bush, and Alice's issues - toward the end of the novel in the "Presidency phase" - seem to be Sittenfeld's way of defending the former first lady. And this is where the book started to wobble.

I was engrossed in American Wife up to the point that Charlie becomes President. I forgot the Laura Bush ties and became fascinated in the story of this woman she created albeit rooted in fact because she was a woman faced with choices. She killed a boy, but she continued to move on with her life (though weighed down by regret). She gets pregnant, but has an abortion. She goes to college. She becomes a librarian. She passes on marriage proposals and breaks up with a very dull man. She stays single into her 30s, but agrees to marry Charlie six weeks after meeting him. Those passages where she first meet's Charlie's family harken heavily back to Sittenfeld's debut novel, Prep: the fish out of water in the rich world theme. I didn't mind the repeat. It was from a different point of view than the younger narrator of Prep, and even though my boyfriend does not come from a wealthy family, I could identify with Alice's apprehension of being tossed into someone else's substantial family history.

But when the Presidency comes in, it's too close to reality for comfort. Charlie does almost exactly what President Bush (the second) did. The reaction to 9/11. The road into war. There are even copies of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. Alice's bleating defense for herself and for not stopping Charlie sound less like Alice and more like a Laura Bush fan trying to explain why this woman did what she did - marry a buffoon who tripped into the Presidency who, if she hadn't been married to him, you think she wouldn't have voted for. And my dislike doesn't come from my dislike of GWB. It's just not believable in a work of fiction that Alice would have done what she did.

I don't regret reading the book, but I wish the last section had gone in a different direction. I almost didn't buy it. I loved Prep, but didn't like Sittenfeld's second book, The Man of My Dreams, which was the first major newspaper review of my career. My then editor sent it to me. I was horrified that I thought it was so terrible. Only after meeting a New York Times critic at Book Expo America and realizing that she disliked it as much as did I feel relieved that I wasn't a moron for not enjoying the following up book to a debut that had been so widely heralded.

But American Wife had gotten so many good reviews. Ambitious? Yes. But a complete winner? No.

The weird thing about this is that I WANTED to love love love this book. I don't necessarily feel guilty about panning The Man of My Dreams because it deserved to be panned, and the job of a review is to inform the audience, not flatter the author. But I knew then and know now that Sittenfeld is a talent, and one who needs to get her work out there to combat all that stupid chick lit and Jennifer Weiner crap that is being heralded as women's fiction. Sittenfeld's writing is strong and her topics important, but I still feel like she's unpolished. American Wife is a much better book then Man of My Dreams. Hopefully ambition will not get in the way of further good fiction from a talented yet albeit still unproven author.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Interview: Michael Uslan

Check out the August issue of New Jersey Monthly for my interview with Michael Uslan about his new book, The Boy Who Loved Batman: A Memoir

Uslan is responsible for getting every modern Batman movie - from 1989 to today - on screen, and the book is about his journey in making that happen. Believe it or not, it was not an easy road.

But it's more than just a "my life in movies" book. It's a wonderful memoir about being a kid growing up in New Jersey. The writing is vivid and lively, and I devoured this book in three days - three very stressful, busy days where all I wanted to do was drop everything to finish the book. It's a great read.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Observation Part 2: More Hair Covers

So apparently this is still happening.

Those were all taken yesterday at Barnes & Noble. I didn't go looking for them - they were all in the same "new releases" shelf. I barely even had to move to take a picture of all of them.

Why? No clue. Any thoughts?

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Review: Everything I Know about Love I Learned from Romance Novels

Welcoming back Sarah Wendell, aka Smart Bitch Sarah to the blog today. She was co-author of Beyond Heaving Bosoms, and my go-to person for two articles I wrote about romance writers. As her website says, she is "Man Titty Media Pundit."

Her new book, Everything I Know about Love I Learned from Romance Novels, comes out in October. If you haven't checked out her site, please do. It is everything you want a website to be: funny (very funny), informative, and opinionated.

Her topic is romance novels. As I am a defender of the real Jersey Shore, she is a defender of a genre that generates over $10 billion a year. Still, despite romances being one of the most if not the most profitable segment of a declining book industry, romance writers and readers are easy targets.

Want examples? This, this or this will do.

Dumb. Epically stupid. To suggest that women who read romances are addicted to porn is idiotic. Would you say your grandfather is addicted to mystery because he reads the new James Patterson book as soon as it comes out? Of course not.

But romance novels, as Wendell points out in this a thoughtful and succinct treatise of the genre, are, for the most part, for women by woman. They have emotions. They have feelings. And, yes, they sometimes have bad covers. But the industry is doing SOMETHING right. $10 billion does not lie.

I'm a 30 year old woman. I'm in a committed relationship. I not only have a bachelor's degree in English literature but a master's degree as well. I even review non-fiction books for upstanding publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and American Way magazine. I don't really like ice cream. And I don't have a cat.

I do, however, enjoy romance novels.

Does that surprise you? It shouldn't. I grew up reading books like Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley High. I started in on Clive Cussler novels at 13 - and those books have more sex than a lot of romance novels do.

They're an escape. They're a mental and physical rest. As Wendell points out, escaping into another world where you KNOW there's going to be a happy ending is a break from everything else that's going on. I have a new book out and am moving at the same time. To sit for a half hour over lunch and slip into another reality is a wonderful break.

And a lot of them are well written, too. The level of detail and accuracy in an Eloisa James book is beyond what I read in most non-fiction. James, by the way, is really Mary Bly, a Shakepseare professor at Fordham with degrees from Oxford and Yale. No slouch.

Sure, some romance books are stinkers, which is where Wendell's site comes it. It reviews, praises and criticizes these books like any other books.

Which they are. Just maligned by people who don't know any better.

Thank you, Wendell, for expressing that so well in this book.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

For Dads and Daughters

If you've got a daughter active in sports - or your said girl who was/is active in sports (hello my fellow brethren!), check out Daddy's Little Goalie: A Father, His Daughters, and Sportsby Robert Strauss.

Robert is friends with my aunt and uncle, and his daughters - yes of the book - are classmates with my cousins. He is also a skilled journalists, and we often share bylines in the same section of a magazine or newspaper.

Example: for the July issue of New Jersey Monthly, he wrote a feature about Atlantic City, and I wrote the sidebar about Miss America.

Anyway, it's a recommend.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Expo America Book Signing

For anyone going to the Book Expo America conference: I'll be signing copies of my bookon Tuesday at 11am. I'll be at booth 3424. AND I WILL HAVE SALT WATER TAFFY.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Anatomy of Two Articles

As you probably know from reading this blog, I'm a freelance journalist, and sometimes I write about books. For the last year or so, I've been reviewing books for American Way magazine, and I can't review those books right after reading them because of my contract.

But now that these two stories are out, I thought you might be interested to see how two assignments from the same book came about.

In September, I get a slew of catalogs from publishers, showcasing what books will be coming out in the next season. After I think most of them have hit my mailbox, I sit down with sticky notes and a pen, and start marking what books I might want for what magazines.

One of those books was Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980--1988by Monty Python's Michael Palin.

"American Way," I marked on the sticky, and requested the book. I pitched it to my editor who said yes. I then proceeded to read all 660+ pages of the book.

The assignment was only 125 words. I was getting paid in accordance to a short piece. Why slog through the entire book?

Of course, because that's what I'm supposed to do. It's what any decent journalist would do. I knew how long the book was before I pitched the review. It wouldn't be write to do a review without reading what you're reviewing, even if it is over 600 pages long.

One theme kept popping up: Running. Palin is a big runner. Not in the "do 52 marathons in 52 weeks way," but in the running-to-clear-the-mind way. I sent his publicist a note asking her if he still ran. He did, she said.

In November, I pitched a story to Runner's World for their "I'm a Runner" column, which runs at the back of every issue.

I'd been trying to break into Runner's World for three years. I even wrote for Bicycling already, which is owned by the same company - and I don't own a bike!

Surprise, surprise:

The article ran in the April issue, with an extended Q&A online.

And in the June issue, I saw this:

And here's the American Way piece.

From reading one book for one small assignment, I ended up writing another big assignment, and I'm currently working on my third piece for Runner's World. And I got to talk to Michael Palin! Yes, that Michael Palin!

On Tuesday, I'm going to Book Expo America for two reasons: first, to sign copies of my new book. Second, to find new books to write about for magazines. And the cycle starts all over again.

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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Review: Fool for Love by Eloisa James

Oh HELL yeah I read another romance novel. C'mon, folks. Smart chicks read them, too, especially when they're written by Shakespeare professors from Fordham.

Quick refresher: Eloisa James is really Mary Bly, who I wrote about here. I don't really dig historical romance - especially when the hero is named "Darby" in an obvious one-letter difference from hero of heroes Darcy. But Bly's books are so researched, and interesting and funny, and such a window into another time period that, when I wanted something fun to read, and couldn't quite handle another Nora Roberts murder-mystery themed romance, picked up Fool for Love, which James published in 2003.

The heroine here is Henrietta, a country bumpkin of sorts but Heiress whose mother died in childbirth. She has also inherited her mother's weak hip, which doctors told her was the reason her mother is dead, and warned Henrietta that she cannot have children.

Darby (yes, see?) is a bit of a city fop who stands to be disinherited because his aunt is knocked up. Since the aunt (not related to him) and his uncle essentially lived separate lives, and the uncle had a mistress, and the aunt was known to get around, he assumed that the kid is not his uncle's - even though the uncle died in the aunt's bedchamber (intrigue!) So if the baby is a boy, Darby loses his inheritance.

So he decides to hit the countryside to see what's what. He brings his two step sisters along. Their parents are dead, so he's responsible for them. While in town, the girls run away from their nursemaid, and into Henrietta.

And things, of course, unspool from there.

The only thing that really bothered me was the Darby name. The aunt's lover's name is Sebastian. Sebastian! Put that name on a hero!

Interesting read when I didn't want to think about what I was reading. I dig it.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century

Long title. Longer book. But worth it.

I'm 30. When I was a kid, the Elizabeth Taylor I knew sold that White Diamonds perfume and was good friends with Michael Jackson. I saw her and Burton in the movie Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe and, like most Hollywood icons, thought she was gorgeous, but that's about it.

When she died, I asked both my boss and my father who they thought would meet her at the pearly white gates. "Richard Burton," they both said.

On a Facebook recommendation, I picked up Furious Love to get a better understanding of what everyone talked about between these two.

Goodness. Talk about a love hate/relationship. I don't know if I hoped that Burton met her at the gates of heaven, or if they should still stay in their separate quarters. If Taylor were one of my friends, I'd have told her a zillion times to just stop talking to him, knowing that she couldn't stay away. It's a sad book, too. What if they hadn't been so public? Or had such problems with drinking?

The book's very sensational, and reads sometimes like an issue of a supermarket tabloid, but I guess that fits with the theme of who these people were, watched constantly, wrapped in a scandal that never quite went away. I imagine if I was an adult at the time this all happened, I'd be fascinated too.

It took me a long time to finish this book, but I'm glad I slogged through. I feel I have a better grasp on what was a fixture of pop culture for a very long time.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review: Just Kids

Not sure what I can say that hasn't been said already about Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids. Not only has it been widely praised, but was also a nominee for book of the year in the National Book Circle Critic Award in the autobiography category.

Smith, I didn't know, grew up in the South Jersey area. I also had no idea that she lived at the Chelsea Hotel, that she never thought she'd be a singer, that she went to New York to be an artist in drawing and poetry. I had no idea that she was such an amazing writer, either.

It's not really a rock and roll memoir. Instead, it's a coming of age story about a confused young woman who moves to New York at 20 years old after giving up a baby for adoption. She lives on the streets for a while until she meets the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Together, they struggle with their work, themselves, and if not each other, then their relationship with each other, particularly Mapplethorpe, who was exploring his homosexuality at the same time he was in a relationship with Smith.

It's beautifully written, and even if you're not familiar with Smith's music, worth a read.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: Spoiled

In July, I bought a pair of pink loafers. I had just started a full time gig and needed something other than flip flops to wear to work. Closed toe shoes were vital, too, since I'd banged my toes up pretty good running, and no one wanted to see that.

After an hour in DSW, I found a pair of pink loafers. They seemed ridiculous. I hate pink. I don't really like loafers. But they were deeply discounted, so I figured I'd give them a shot.

Eight months later, I traveled to a conference in Tampa with only one pair of shoes in my bag: the pink loafers. They are comfortable and, believe it or not, go with almost anything.

I tell this story because that's how I felt about Spoiled. Looking at it, I thought that the book wasn't for me. It's a young adult book about a spoiled Hollywood brat and the stink she puts up when the half sister she never knew moved into her mansion. Not exactly my kind of thing, especially since (aside from the half sister part), I figured it'd have a very Sweet Valley, Jessica/Elizabeth thing going on.

But the book is written by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan a.k.a. the Fug Girls. The person who had this computer before me apparently loved their work, and since she didn't clean her cache, I accidentally got to their website. I'm hooked. It looks at celebrity fashion, but with snark and a slight British overtone (Cocks has dual citizenship). Based on that, I gave Spoiled a shot.

And read it in a day.

Is it brain bending fiction? No. Is it predictable? Of course. But was it something wildly entertaining to read? Absolutely. At times, I forgot that it was written for a younger demographic.

My only quibble is that I worry it'll go stale fast with all the name dropping of celebrities and fashion lines. But hey, if you're taking it on the beach this summer, will you really care?

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review: Drinking with Miss Dutchie

My feelings on Drinking with Miss Dutchie: mixed. And short.

On one hand, Ed Breslin's story is worth telling. He finally was able to commit to sobriety and quit smoking after he and his wife adopted a lab they named Dutchie. He circled the drain multiple times with his drinking, and having a dog helped him, he thinks, finally pull out of that death spiral.

On the other hand, the narrative of this book is a muffled. Breslin jumps back and forth from the current day to the past and back again, and repeats himself. I think this would have done much better told in a linear fashion. It would have given strength to the memoir element rather than shucking it behind the story of a couple and their dog.

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Review: Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility was on the top of the stack of galleys in my office when I was about to leave on vacation. I saw the cover, read through the preface and though, OK, this book might have a shot.

It had more than a shot. It's a stunning novel, and one that I read in just over a day.

Rules of Civility is about Katey Kontent, a 25-year-old secretary who, with roommate Eve, meets a Tinker Grey on New Year's Eve, 1937. Katey is a legal typist. Grey comes draped in a fine cashmere coat and orders the girls champagne just as they ran out of nickels for martinis. Yes, he is Gatsby-like, but without the overlapping obsession about one woman. And since the book starts in the 1960s with Katey looking at an art exhibit featuring Tinker as a poor penniless man, you know that this wealth will not last long.

The trio hit it off, and eventually make dates together. Tinker seems to be leaning toward Katey, which doesn't rest too well with Eve. Right when Eve seems to shake it off, though, well, I won't say too much more or I'll ruin the book for you.

I wouldn't say this is light vacation fluff. There's too much depth and texture. Even though the book revolves around the trio, the character of Katey, who was orphaned at 19, is almost like its own story. It made me wonder how Amor Towles, a 46 year old man from the suburbs of Boston, could capture the limbo that is being in your mid-20s.

The setting of late 1930s New York City, too, is well done. This book makes me want a historical novel and gives me a headache at the prospect at the same time.

I regret to say that you can't buy it until July, though. But mark it down. Make sure you grab it when it's out. Yes, I think it's that good.

P.S. I just read through the Q&A that came with the book. Towles allowed himself one year to write the book. He wrote, revised and, as he said, "banked" one chapter a week. What a marvelous idea. I think I might try that since I'm struggling with my fiction (though he did add that the entire process took about three years, which included revisions of the entire thing).

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Review: In Office Hours

Well, this was a dishy little novel.

In Office Hoursis about two women who have affairs. One, Stella, is a higher up at a ginormous oil company in London. She starts sleeping with a 27 year old male new hire - yes, she's married, but not to him. The other is Bella, a 20-something single mom who works at the same company and starts banging her married boss.

In each case, we only get inside the woman's head. It's the kind of book that makes me wonder why ANYONE would have an affair. They both seem to know it won't end well, but they forge ahead anyway. But why? It's not that author Lucy Kellaway doesn't explain the (gravely flawed) rationale for their actions...but maybe it's me.

Kellaway is an editor and columnist at the Financial Times, which is why the office part of this book is spot on. That, combined with the British melodrama feel of the book, makes for a light read. I'd have enjoyed this on vacation if I was away.

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review: The Secret Lives of Dresses

I don't know if I've ever described a book this way, but here goes: The Secret Lives of Dressesis cute.

I can't think of a better word to wrap up this sweet story about a college senior who, after her grandmother ends up in the hospital, starts working at her grandmother's vintage clothing store. It's written about Erin McKean, the woman behind the super fun Dress a Day blog.

Talk about the right book at the right time, too. Last year, I wrote this piece about vintage in Tampa for the New York Times. I'm trying to find the perfect vintage dress to wear to my book launch party in May, and I've been talking to a few dealers about my options (late 60s, early 70s, something along the lines of Halston designs - apparently that's what I'm after). I also made a big vintage buy in December - probably the most expensive dress I have ever purchased - and I think it was worth it. I'm flying back to Tampa in March for Phillies spring training, and trying to figure out if I have time to go to La France, which is one of the places I wrote about in the Tampa article, and the coolest store I've ever been in. They sold me my first vintage dress, a pink floaty 1930s thing that was in "as is" condition. It probably needed an overhaul, but being a poor college kid, I didn't have the resources to fix it. I think I wrote it twice before it fell apart. But both times I wore it? Felt like a million bucks.

The book isn't about why vintage rocks. It's about a turn in one woman's life. But it's a nice element, and very well done.

It's not a perfect book, though. Some of the characters a too cliched, and the plot lines a shade predictable. But I don't think this book was meant to be a big thinker. It's the kind of book I'd suggest you bring on vacation. It'd make great relaxed reading.

On another note: I apologize that the blog's been a little quiet lately. I've been reviewing books for American Way magazine, and I can't write here what they are because of my contract. Gotta keep that dog in fancy kibble.

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