Recent Reading: A Little Bit of Everything

I’m in no danger of getting ahead of my To Be Read shelves, but I keep trying.  The biography of Queen Elizabeth still sits on my coffee table–it’s a good book, but I don’t have time to pick it up very often.  Today I’ve been reading on my Kindle, Ghost Writers in the Sky, a mystery set at a down-scale writers’ conference.   I ran across this novel by Anne R. Allen while blog surfing one night.

A few weeks ago the ad campaign for the movie John Carter reminded me of the many Edgar Rice Burroughs books I read long ago.  Sadly, the movie seems to have been a colossal turkey.  The generic-sounding title can’t have helped, but maybe the studio was afraid boys wouldn’t want to see a movie called A Princess of Mars, the original novel written in 1917.  Of course if the princess looked anything like the Frank Frazetta cover paintings I remember from the editions I once owned, I’m sure anyone with a Y chromosome would have bought a ticket.

I knew I had none of Burroughs’ novels in my library now.  If I had hung onto all the books I’ve owned over the last (mumble mumble) years, my house would look like the set for one of those shows about hoarders on cable TV.   Browsing through the Burroughs novels available on Kindle (which is most of them), I was reminded of The Land That Time Forgot and its two sequels, The People That Time Forgot and Out of the Abyss, three short novels that I enjoyed long ago.  Never mind Barsoom, I decided, I want to revisit Caspak.  So I downloaded the trilogy in one ebook, complete with the original pulp magazine covers, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The narrative is old-fashioned, the “biology” ridiculous, the sentiments often sexist and/or racist in a rather innocent early-twentieth-century sort of way, but the adventures are still fun to read.  And still available, after almost a century, which is more than one can say for most novels written in 1918.

I wonder if the same will be true of Catching Fire, the middle book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.  I read this one in the wake of the publicity for the movie, found it not quite as compelling as the first, haven’t read the third book yet despite the cliffhanger ending.

For a change of pace, I picked up Deeanne Gist’s charming Love on the Line, a sweet romance set in Brenham, Texas in 1903, and featuring a very independent female telephone operator and an undercover Texas Ranger posing as a “troubleman” for the phone company.  Deeanne’s novels are delightful not only for their characters and plots but for the wonderful details of their thoroughly researched settings.  Love on the Line is a finalist in this year’s Romance Writers of America Rita® contest.

Marcia Muller has been one of my favorite mystery writers since I read her first novel about investigator Sharon McCone, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, back in 1977.  I recently enjoyed her latest, City of Whispers, which continues McCone’s adventures and the stories of her friends and family.  Sharon has been through a lot through the series, but she has not aged those thirty-five years.  What a shame that only works in fiction.

Tuesday Ramblings

I’ve taken the first few steps toward the RWA Conference in Anaheim this summer.  I’ve registered for the conference and reserved a room at the hotel.  The memory of my face on the Jumbotron at last year’s awards ceremony inspired me to try for a new photograph (which has to be uploaded to RWA by next Monday).  So I asked my friend Ha to take more casual shots this year.  I’m still getting used to cameras that don’t waste film and transfer pictures to a flashdrive, but that’s natural to Ha, and he took quite a few.  Jo Anne and I winnowed them down to three favorites, and I think I’ve picked the one to use.  I won’t have a lot of shopping to do this year–I have luggage, and shoes–but I’ll do some for fun.  Maybe a different dressy top for the Big Party.  No hurry–the conference isn’t until the last week in July, a month later than last year.

Last night I finished reading Catching Fire, the second book in Suzanne Collins’  young adult trilogy.  It ended on more of a cliff than The Hunger Games did, so I’ll probably read the third book, Mockingjay, soon, to find out how it all ends.  If, like me, you have mixed emotions about the current trends in YA fiction, stop over at Spacefreighters Lounge and read Donna Frelick’s thoughts on where, and by how much, the genres of science fiction, romance, and young adult fiction overlap.  (Donna is a double finalist in the Golden Heart® this year, for two science fiction romances.)

For the moment I need something more cheerful, so I’ve picked Deeanne  Gist’s latest novel off my To Be Read shelf.  Love on the Line, the story of a female telephone operator in turn of the century Texas, a Texas Ranger under cover, and a gang of train robbers, is a nominee for a Rita® award this year in the Inspirational category.

I love this picture from the April, 1935 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics, as reproduced on the Paleofuture blog at Smithsonian.com.  Go read about it.  I’m going to have to spend more time prowling around the site.

Here’s something else worth visiting: a videocam view of an eagles’ nest on the grounds of the Alcoa plant in Davenport. Iowa.  Liberty and Justice are raising three eaglets in perfect peace under the watchful eyes of a couple of million visitors

Recent Reading

I managed to finish reading a couple of books last weekend, not that I’m in any danger of catching up with the To Be Read shelves, and I can’t even remember what’s on my Kindle.  But I do my best.  This afternoon at work I had a job to do that involved recoding information on an online bookkeeping site (the client and her business are located several states away).  The software is slow to begin with.  My work computer is several years old and still runs Windows XP and IE8.  After each transaction, the screen refreshed so slowly that to keep from banging my head on the desk I pulled out my Kindle and found I could read a page or so while the screen was blank.  I’m not kidding.  I spent an hour and a half making those corrections as fast as the computer could handle them–and reading while I waited for each one to process.  Heck of a way to read, but better than staring at that blank screen in frustration.

I recently finished reading James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense on my Kindle–excellent book.  I really enjoy Bell’s writing on writing–one of these days I’ll have to try one of his novels.  Here’s the review I wrote for the Houston Bay Area RWA newsletter.  (I also posted a review of Bell’s Plot & Structure here.)

A couple of weeks ago I read Darynda Jones’ First Grave on the Right, a book that won a Golden Heart® in 2009.  Three years later it’s on the shelves with two sequels, and another due out this fall.  I’ve only read the first one (but there are two more on my TBR stack), and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It’s a humorous blend of mystery and romance, with a heroine who is a “part-time private investigator and full-time grim reaper.”  Charlie sees dead people, which isn’t always as much of an advantage in her p.i. work as you might imagine.  As for the hero, if that’s what he is, well, Charlie spends the span of the book trying to figure out what he is. 

Next I read Joan Hess’ latest Claire Malloy mystery, Deader Homes and Gardens.  I’ve been reading this series (and Hess’ Maggody mysteries, too) since it began, and wouldn’t miss one.  Deader Homes moved a little more slowly than most–or possibly I was just reading more slowly.  The large cast was occasionally confusing, but Claire’s daughter Caron and her BFF Inez (approaching their senior year in high school) got themselves into as much trouble as usual while helping Claire in her unofficial sleuthing.  And Claire, as usual, gets to the bottom of things in her own unconventional way.  She continues to be one of my favorite cozy detectives.

Looking for a change of pace, I opened Zoe Archer’s Collision Course on my Kindle.  This is a very short novel, published by Carina Press, and falls into the subgenre of science fiction romance.   It tilts more toward the (quite explicit) romance end of the scale, and I would have liked to see more of the universe Archer created.  But trap an independent scavenger heroine and a military pilot hero alone together in her small space ship–well, once or twice I wanted to tell them to get out of that bunk and get on with the mission.  By the time the story ended, though, I was ready to download the sequel.  If you like steamy action romance, Collision Course is for you.

I’m still reading the new biography of Queen Elizabeth II.  No hurry–that’s my coffee table book.  On my Kindle I’m enjoying Edgar Rice Burrough’s delightfully old-fashioned The Land That Time Forgot

When I finished Deader Homes and Gardens a few days ago, I had my usual what-shall-I-read-next quandary, until I opened the newspaper the next morning to see multiple stories about the movie version of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  I read the book last year, but I hadn’t revisited the harsh world of Panem.  So I picked up the second book, Catching Fire.  So far, just as harsh and compelling as the first book.   Definitely not an old-fashioned tale.

Books, books, books.

I braved the heat to do some shopping today, looking for a birthday present for my neighbor, and the autopilot in my car dragged me into the parking lot at Half-Price Books.  It often does, despite my continuing insistence that I don’t need more books.

I think I’ve actually bought, and read, more paper books than electronic since I bought my Kindle about three months ago.  And since  the Houston NPR station, KUHF, split into two channels, one news/talk and one classical music, I hear about even more interesting books, both the newly published and those going into paperback release, giving one show or another a good excuse to rerun an interview from last year.

A couple of weeks ago such an interview sent me over to Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy of Empire of the Summer Moon, the story of Quanah Parker, the last great chief of the Comanche, and the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured by the Comanche as a girl and grew up as one of them.  This week it was Last Call, a history of Prohibition.

So there I stood in the U. S. History alcove at Half-Price Books, staring at the shelves, neatly alphabetized by author, completely unable to remember the name of the writer whose interview had made me want to find the book.  What to do?  Well, I pulled my Kindle out of my purse, flipped the switch, turned on the wireless connection (I have the 3G version, which works anywhere you can get a cell phone signal), and searched the Kindle store for the book.  There are a LOT of books with the title Last Call, but there at the top was the one I wanted, by Daniel Okrent.  (No wonder I couldn’t remember the name.)  And there on the shelf was a copy of the hardback edition.

I also found a DVD for a friend, the birthday present I wanted for my neighbor (three novels by the very talented Deeanne Gist, who writes Inspirational Historical Romances that appeal even to Non-Inspired readers like me), and The Virgin’s Lover, a novel by Phillipa Gregory, whose books take me back to the sweeping historical fiction I read as a girl.

Last night I finished reading The Restorer, by Amanda Stevens, an excellent and scary romance/mystery about an archeologist who specializes in cemetery restoration.  (I have a degree in archeology and anthropology myself, and I never knew there was such a specialty.)  My only complaint about this book is that the sequel won’t be out until November.

Both Amanda and Deeanne are members of the West Houston RWA chapter, as are two other friends who are releasing some of their backlist books in electronic form.  Before Colleen Thompson wrote gritty romantic suspense, she wrote edgy historical romance under the name Gwyneth Atlee.  Several of these are now available again as ebooks.  Cheryl Bolen writes wonderful Regency era romances, and some of her out-of-print titles can now be downloaded as well.

Time to pick something from my ever-burgeoning collection of unread books.  I don’t think I’m quite ready to return to the world of The Hunger Games.  Maybe I’ll revisit Sookie Stackhouse in Charlaine Harris’ latest tale.  Or find out what’s happening with Cotton Malone in Steve Berry’s new one.  Or go to sleep, because I have to go to work in the morning.  Naw, that’s too practical.  The only problem with all those unread books (including the three I bought yesterday after the meeting) is choosing the next one to read.

I was looking for a change of pace

after finishing Suzanne Collins’ excellent but unrelentingly bleak Hunger Games, something cheerful, like a murder mystery, so I picked up Earlene Fowler’s Spider Web, the latest in her Benni Harper series.  A note at the beginning of the book led me to think about another type of pace: the connection between the passage of time in the real world and in the world of a long-running fictional character.

Spider Web is Fowler’s fifteenth novel about Benni Harper.  The first in the series, Fool’s Puzzle, published in 1994, took place in November 1992.  The current novel is set in March 1998.  Fowler mentions in her note the problems of remembering (or researching) details of technology used twelve or thirteen years ago, but she has, I think, another reason for fastening her series to an internal calendar.  Benni’s husband suffers from PTSD induced by his service in Viet Nam.

Another series with a strong internal timeline is Sue Grafton’s, beginning with A Is for Alibi, published and set in 1982.  The latest novel, U Is for Undertow, published in 2009, takes place in April 1988.  So Kinsey Milhone has aged about six years in the nearly thirty years Grafton has been following her adventures.  She lives and works in a world much less affected by cell phones and computers, and makes us realize how fast technology has moved in the past quarter century.  (V Is for Vengeance is scheduled for November 2011.)

Not all writers treat the passage of real and fictional time the same way.  Marcia Muller has written 27 books featuring Sharon McCone since Edwin of the Iron Shoes was published in 1977.  Talk about technology flying past!  Sharon and her colleagues have aged a few years, yes, changed jobs and relationships, at a much slower pace than real time.  But they have adapted to cell phones, computers, and all the rest of modern technology.  Muller identifies days and months within the books, but not years.  Coming Back, published in 2009, feels every bit as contemporary now as the first book did nearly 35 years ago.  (City of Whispers is due in October 2011.)

I was surprised when I pulled Janet Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum novel, One for the Money, off the shelf and saw that it was published in 1994.  Stephanie, Joe, Ranger, and the rest of the gang exist in a timeless world, flying through their cases at a furious rate, unhampered by reality.  One book a year (Smokin’ Seventeen will be out shortly) in our lives, one case every few weeks in Stephanie’s.

I don’t know exactly how or why these authors, or many others who have kept their characters alive through many books and many years, make their decisions.  No doubt some plan their methods in advance, while others are taken by surprise by success.  These four authors have proved that there is no one solution to keeping series characters growing without growing old.

So You Think You Can Dance

really lives up to its name during the audition shows.  Some wonderful dancers try out, of course, and move on to the next round, but some of them–well, they think they can dance, and maybe their moms do, but the judges and the audience know better.  SYTYCD is the only reality and/or competition show I follow.  I’m not a dancer, not even a social dancer, and I frequently have no idea why the professional judges like or dislike anything.

But I love the show.  Dancing, music, costumes, choreography, suspense, SYTYCD has it all.  As a veteran of too many writing contests and sometimes scathing judging, I admire anyone willing to put their hopes and talents on public display as these young dancers do.  I also admire the way the dancers waiting to audition cheer for the ones on stage, and the way the eventual contestants help and support each other.

I’ve caught occasional episodes of some of the other competition shows.  American Idol and Dancing with Minor Celebrities are also, as far as I’ve seen, based on talent and/or hard work.  The Great Race certainly involves hard work, as well as strategy, manipulation, and now and then spiking someone else’s wheels.  Survivor appears to me to be based entirely on manipulation, trickery and doing unto someone else before they can do it to you.

Of course, I’m not forced to watch any of these shows, and generally I don’t.  What brings the whole subject to mind is the fact that I’m about halfway through reading Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  I don’t read a lot of YA lit, although I’m happy that so many young people are fueling the current popularity of the genre.  First person present tense narration is not my favorite form.  But The Hunger Games and its sequels have gotten such great word of mouth (and mouse) that I picked up the set.

Collins’ Hunger Games are reality TV run amok, with a flavoring of Theseus and the Minotaur.  Twenty-four teenagers, “tributes” from the twelve districts of a post-Apocalyptic North America, are thrown into the games.  Some are volunteers and some have lost the lottery, but only one will survive, while the entire populace must watch as punishment for past rebellion and warning against another attempt.  The wealthy dwellers in the Capitol bet on the action, and the deaths, all of which are televised, twenty-four/seven.

By page 200, and after several days in the vast “arena,” only nine or ten of the kids are left alive.  These include Katniss, and as she is our first-person narrator, we know she will survive, but Collins keeps us on the edge of our seats, hoping that she will accomplish more, that she won’t be the only survivor, that she will somehow turn the Games upside down.  And we cringe a little, and wonder just what popular entertainment says about any society.

The Hunger Games is bleak, even for a post-Apocalyptic vision, but it won’t let me go until I find out how Katniss survives.  And I will read the sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, for the rest of the story, although I’ll probably take a break and read something light between them.  And on TV I’ll stick with SYTYCD, which sends its eliminated dancers off alive and well, with an introduction to their next career opportunity and every expectation of a successful future.