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.

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