Saturday, September 27, 2008

Eclipse

Eclipse
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company, 2007
629 pages

I just finished reading the third book in the Twilight series, and I'm still hooked.  Book #3 is just as good as Books #1 and #2. This series is like crack, or Mountain Dew. The more I read the more I want to read.

Book #1 had some major action towards the end, and Book #3 has even more. The relationships between the three main characters get even more interesting. Oh, I wish I could write more without giving too much away. But for some reason, I just don't want to spoil this series for anyone.

However, I need a break. So I'm going to look on my shelf and find something else to read before I move on to the next book in the series. 

Read this series. Read this series. Read this series.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

New Moon

New Moon
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company, 2006
563 pages

So my niece got me hooked on the Twilight series, and I wrote a review about the first book back in July. I could hardly wait to get back to the USA so I could read the other books in the series, which I ordered on Amazon.com from Vienna but had sent to my address in the States (because I was having trouble with my mail delivery in Austria).

I just want to say that people in at least four states and three countries - from the ages of 11 to 53 - are reading this series because of me. And they are all loving it. So Stephenie, please send the royalty check soon. :-)

OK. This is Book #2. Sometimes, the second book in a series is not as good as the first. Sort of like a movie sequel is not usually as good as the original movie.  I don't think this is the case with New Moon. I actually liked it a little bit more than Twilight.

My niece (age 12) and one of my friends (age 24) disagree with me on the grounds that their favorite character is not featured as prominently in New Moon as in other books. But it's really a matter of personal preference. You see, the plot thickens in New Moon. The vampire gets a rival.

New Moon draws a line in the forest, and you're going to have to figure out whose side you're on. This is where I have to stop because of spoilers. 

Just read it. And don't feel guilty about it.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

P.S. I immediately started reading Book #3 - Eclipse - after finishing New Moon. Consider yourself warned. :-)

Friday, September 12, 2008

New Europe

New Europe
Author: Michael Palin
Phoenix (UK) 2007
306 pages

Depending on your age and interests, you might know Michael Palin as a comedian (he was a member of the British Monty Python comedy group, and appeared in some of their more famous bits such as the Lumberjack and Spam) or the host of a number of travel documentaries, like Pole to Pole or Hemingway or Sahara. Or maybe you think he's the guy married to a certain Alaskan hockey mom (he's not.) Or maybe you don't know him at all. You should.

This book was given to me by a friend in Vienna just before I left to come back to the States. I wanted a book for the flight home and had several to choose from, including some good fiction. But I chose this one because it seemed appropriate, since I was leaving Europe. 

What a read! First off, Palin is an excellent writer (assuming he, not a ghostwriter, actually wrote the book.) The content supposedly comes from notes he took while filming the documentary of the same name (now available on DVD). By New Europe we're talking mostly about Eastern Europe - specifically that part of Europe which was behind the "Iron Curtain" until the early 1990s. So this book covers the trip that Palin and the documentary crew made through these countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kaliningrad (Russia), Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the former East Germany. (And I know that Turkey wasn't behind the Iron Curtain and that's why I emphasized mostly above.)

Of these countries, I have only been to the Czech Republic. Except for the time I walked about a quarter or a mile into Hungary from Austria. And I'm not counting Germany because I've only been to the part that used to be West Germany.  So really, for me, this was new territory.

When I was in Austria, there were lots of TV commercials promoting tourism of some of these places, especially Albania, Macedonia, and Turkey. Regarding the first two, I'm still not convinced even after reading this book that I would want to go there. But Turkey is high on my list. Palin spends quite a bit of time lingering in Turkey, and there are a couple of reasons for that. First, Turkey really wants to be a part of the European Union, although only a small part of that country is (geographically speaking) in Europe. Secondly, there's lots to see in Turkey. From the beautiful city of Istanbul with its incredible Ottoman architecture and the scenic Bosphorus, to Cappadocia with its amazingly strange land formations, to historical places like Ephesus (as in the book of Ephesians in the Bible). Sounds to me like Turkey's got it going on.

Other places I'd like to visit, especially after reading this book, are Slovenia (specifically Bled), Croatia (especially the cities of Split and Dubrovnik), the mountains of Romania, and the cities of Budapest (Hungary) and Krakov (Poland).

Of course, Palin has some interesting adventures along the way, like the time he meets up with the White Brotherhood (a very large group of spiritualist paneurythmic dancers) at a camp site in Bulgaria , and visiting Bran Castle in Romania (where writer Bram Stoker got the idea for the Dracula character - no, Dracula wasn't real.) There are plenty of humorous situations, too. Like watching the Turkish oil wrestlers. Or having the massage in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic by a female massage therapist who told him she was going to "control his liver."

You just have to read it. Or maybe see the DVD.

Palin set out to discover this strange "new" old land and to see how the people who once lived behind the Iron Curtain are faring now as players in New Europe. Some, like Slovenia and the Czech Republic, are doing exceptionally well. Others are having a hard time making the transition from communism to capitalism. But all are unique and interesting in their own way.

Rating 4.5 stars. 

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Last Juror

The Last Juror
Author: John Grisham
Random House, 2004
505 pages

Once upon a time, I was a big John Grisham fan. I loved A Time To Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker and a couple of his other early books. But I got tired of the lawyer stories, and even more tired of the main characters ending up on some Caribbean beach, sipping daiquiris or whatever while their recently-swindled million dollars sits in a Cayman Islands bank. Then there was the Christmas story that was so awful, it really did me in, and I swore off Grisham.

So when a co-worker gave me The Last Juror, I gracefully declined. "I don't do lawyer novels," I said. "Oh, this one's different," my co-worker promised. It's about a reporter."

Indeed it is. It's the early 1970s. The main character is twenty-three years old and has recently moved to Clanton, Mississippi from upstate New York, where he was on some sort of extended undergraduate plan at Syracuse but dropped out when rich Grandma decided not to support him anymore. Grandma's in Memphis, so the main character (eventually he submits to being called 'Willie' by his Southern friends) heads down South in his Spitfire car. One of the annoying things about this book is Willie's continuous references to "my Spitfire." I'm sorry, but after the fifth or six time, "my car" would have been sufficient. 

(Speaking of Syracuse, one of the things I like about Grisham is how he calls universities by their common name. So Duke University is just plain Duke. And Purdue University is just plain Purdue. OK, back to the story.)

At first, Willie is just a reporter for the local newspaper. But circumstances change and suddenly . . . gasp . . . he's the Editor and Owner. As he settles into his new home in small town Mississippi, he takes a look around and sees how different things are from where he came from in New York. There are lots of stereotypical Southern characters and multiple references to Southern food, e.g., BBQ, corn bread, pecan pie . . . 

Maybe it's not really a lawyer story, but there are lawyers in the book, and judges, and criminals, and court scenes.  The basic premise is that a young man from a family of reclusive Southern mafia-types is convicted for the rape and murder of a young mother, and before he is sentenced, he threatens the jury. Some of the jurors can't bring it to themselves to give him the death penalty, so he gets life in prison. But gets paroled after only nine years. After he's out, jurors start dropping like flies. Of course, as things happen, Willie's writing all about it in his paper.

I didn't particularly like Willie as a character. He had certain characteristics that I admire. He has convictions, and is quite courageous in putting them into print, regardless of their popularity. But there was just something "empty" about him. I expected the vacuum to be filled by the end of the story, but it wasn't.

My favorite character was Miss Callie, the mother of eight children - seven of them with PhDs. Miss Callie is someone who becomes a really good friend and counselor to Willie - and I will leave it at that to avoid spoilers. 

Two of the secondary characters in The Last Juror seemed oddly familiar to me, so I had to investigate to be sure. Remember the Donald Sutherland character in the movie A Time to Kill? (Crotchety old lawyer?) His name was Lucien Wilbanks and he's the defense attorney for the rapist/murderer in The Last Juror. The other character is Harry Rex Vonner, the alcoholic lawyer played by Oliver Platt in A Time to Kill. Just a little Grisham trivia for you.

It was a light read, entertaining in places, and it went quickly. Great writing? Not really. But it made me look forward to my upcoming trip to North Carolina and all the good Southern food I'll be eating when I get there.

Rating: 2.5 stars. Sorry, John.