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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 upgra

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.

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 magazi

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 brai

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 partic

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, b

Review: The Year of Living Biblically

I'd meant to read The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible when 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

Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh

I was surprised at myself when I bought Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by 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 &

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

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 fi

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 th

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 earl

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 f

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 Selves a 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 ma

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.

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.

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

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.

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, eith

Review: Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson

I won't say too much about Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City because 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 wa

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 stretc

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 g

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 te

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?

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 Novel by 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 Do

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