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BOOK REVIEW

For sportswriter, dating's no longer a game

I Think She’s Trying to Tell Me Something, Dan Graziano, Avon, 275 pp., $12.95

Jack Byrnes has issues with women. And the biggest issue he has right now is that the ones he never wanted to see again have come back to haunt him.

In the days leading up to his 30th birthday, this New York-based sportswriter has run into not one but five of his former girlfriends in unlikely -- and, therefore, all the more disturbing -- places. As he is forced to revisit each of the failed relationships, he starts to think about what lesson life is trying to teach him and whether he can make the grade before the love of his life passes him by.

''Now, I am not a superstitious person," Jack explains. ''I'm not a big believer in fate or destiny or some otherworldly element that predetermines the outcome of my life. . . . What I really believe, though, is that every now and then, when the universe takes the time to try and tell us something, it's our responsibility to hear what it has to say."

''I Think She's Trying to Tell Me Something" is Dan Graziano's first novel. A reporter who covers baseball for The (Newark) Star-Ledger, Graziano peppers his book with enough sports chatter and behind-the-scenes information to keep any fan interested, but he weaves in enough intrigue and insight for those who don't care about what's happening on the field.

For you baseball fans: Covering spring training isn't fun. ''People think we fly down to Florida, hang out on the beach, play a little golf, kick back and get a tan. They are, of course, wrong," Graziano tells us through Jack. ''It's seven weeks away from home without any significant break. It's six a.m. wake-up calls, fourteen-hour days that begin way too early and end way too late for you to do anything but weep as you drive past a beach or a golf course."

Graziano explores the different relationships men have with their buddies, their female friends, and their girlfriends, painting an appealing picture of a ladies' man who wants to settle down without settling for second best.

His experience as a sports journalist gives lead character Jack a measure of credibility you don't usually find in fun books like this, and female readers may appreciate -- or at least find humor in -- the candid look at the inner workings of the male mind in relationship mode. His writing is conversational, fast-flowing, and funny, making you feel like you're listening in on banter between friends at a bar. His characters are sympathetic, smart, and just flawed enough to remind you of people you probably know. Graziano's description of an insecure, highly successful (but perpetually bitter) ex-girlfriend turned chick-lit author who writes him into her latest book is hilarious, and when he details his relationship with a crazy ex who really was crazy, you feel a twinge of pity for both of them.

As you read about Jack's sometimes miserable but highly entertaining past, you can't help but wonder how much of the book is autobiographical. There's a ring of truth to some of the conversations Jack has with his friends, a certain something that seems pulled from experience. But even if the book is all fiction, you get a taste of Graziano's real life in the bonus ''Little Black Book" at the end of the story -- a heartwarming essay about how Graziano met his wife that shows that, sometimes, nice guys finish first.

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