Issue #104 (October 15, 2000)

Book of a Lifetime:
Last month, via an interlibrary loan, I was able to read a book I'd not read in more than 25 years. Originally read in junior high school, I couldn't remember the name of Emmy Keeps a Promise by Madye Lee Chastain. After trying for years to identify the book, AAR Editor Nora Armstrong and AAR Reviewer Jane Jorgenson, who are also librarians, said they would post my synopsis on Fiction-L, a discussion loop for librarians. Imagine my glee when, after more than 25 years of fruitless effort, within a day of posting my synopsis, I had the answer!

Now that I had the name, how would I find the book? Neither of the two librarians who provided the title had copies themselves. And since the book was published in 1956 by a now-defunct publisher, I couldn't ask them to borrow an archived copy as I'd occasionally done in the past for my work at the site. A check of UBS's both online and off only revealed two copies. One was a paperback version for $25; it was apparently sold days before I wanted to buy it. Another copy was a hardcover, probably the same version I’d read in the Portola Junior High School library, on sale for nearly $200.00.

I next tried the online auction services, only to discover a copy had been sold the day before for three dollars by a woman whose cousin had been looking for it for 20 years! In my desperation, I even called a librarian at my old school, 1,500 miles away, to see if they still had a copy of it, to no avail. My husband, who had taken to teasing me about the book, calling it "Emmy Eats a Pickle," was no help at all, but he did suggest something I'd only heard of before but had never tried - the interlibrary loan.

The Internet has made the world a seemingly small place, because when I called to request the book, the librarian mentioned how she had read about it on a librarian's discussion list two weeks before. I had to smile at that, but crossed my fingers when she mentioned that many library systems across the country seemed to have a copy of it and that it was likely I'd be able to borrow a copy from another library.

Two weeks ago, right before I knew I was in for a few days of intense and stressful work here at the site, I heard from my library - a copy of Emmy was waiting for me. I could either plunge into my stressful work or take a two-hour holiday and re-read the book. I took the holiday, and I'm very glad I did! (And, btw, if anyone has this book and wants to sell it, or comes across this book - please get it for me - I'll take it off your hands for a tidy little profit.)

(10/16/00: Upon returning home from our vacation, I discovered a package from AAR Reviewer Colleen McMahon containing a paperback copy of Emmy. Thank you, Colleen, for doing one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.)

Emmy Keeps a Promise was likely the first romance I ever read, though I didn't know that until I re-read it. Set in New York in the 1850's, it's the story of 11-year-old Emmy and her older sister Arabel who move from a small town in upstate New York to the big city so her sister can take a teaching job at a private girl's school. They are befriended by a wealthy family; Lissa goes to school with Emmy and is taught by Arabel. Among their experiences are watching the "Swedish songbird," Jenny Lind, in concert, and supping at Delmonico's.

Arabel is a proud, independent, and beautiful young woman with a voice like an angel who feels she and Emmy cannot continue to not accept this wealthy family's hospitality. Her feelings for Lissa's cousin, Captain Andy, only make matters worse, particularly since another young woman has set her cap for him. Things tie up in a wonderful little bow at the end as Captain Andy and Arabel get together, with a little help from Emmy and Lissa.

While told from Emmy's perspective, this is a romance novel. Emmy is scrappy and clever and Arabel is a combination of independence and waif. Andy is a wealthy and dashing ship's captain who pursues Arabel just as ardently and humorously - albeit completely chastely - as do Stephanie Laurens' Bar Cynster men. The "other woman" is as vain, talentless, and annoying as "other women" often are, and the family that befriends Emmy and her sister are loving and slightly eccentric.

Clearly, you can go home again, and have it be successful. I think, however, that this is the exception to the rule. Yes, Mrs. Mike is equally wonderful now that I'm 39 as it was when I was 13, but most of the early "real" historical romances I tried were not. They were surely epic in scope, but for me, they were also overly dramatic and not terribly well written. I know that Forever Amber, for instance, is considered one of the great romances, but it resonated for me far more as a 16-year-old than it did when I was 36.

As with most romance readers, I've been a "bookie" all my life. Until I started to read romance, I often used to pick books to buy based on their thickness. Always a fan of historical fiction, I started to consume Michener, Uris, Clavell, and Wouk when I started high school (McCullough's Ancient Rome series and the books of William Rutherford came later). When I first tried, in college, several historical romances, they didn't do much for me, which seemed odd considering how epic were the stories of those authors of historic fiction.

I think that great length and great romance do not go together all that well. What about Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series? If you will recall, Outlander was not originally written for the romance market, although, when first published, Gabaldon's publisher suggested it be labeled as such to attract a wider readership. They were right, and after its enormous success, it was reissued as fiction. All the subsequent sequels have been labeled as fiction as well. Because it was recommended to me by fellow romance readers, I had a tough time reading Outlander; it was so much "bigger" than the romances I had come to love. Because it is so epic in scope and is about more than simply Jamie and Claire, it is truly more than just a romance. But, since they come together and are separated and go through so much throughout the series, I decided to stop after the first book and set aside the remainder of the series for later, when I was in a different frame of mind.

Although by the end of it, I was engrossed in Outlander, my difficulties in reading it helped to crystallize my problems with the older, more epic-styled romances. Let me be clear here - I'm not saying that the flaws I find in those early romances exist in Outlander, but thinking about what made Outlander difficult to read helped me determine, in part, why those older books didn't work for me.

I can remember reading Michener's The Source at the beach one long summer weekend - I was captivated by thousands of years of history. This is an immensely long book. My father had made it his life's work to read a book of this length and never succeeded; he told me how envious he was of me when I polished it off in three days. So it's not length that is, per se, a problem for me. The problem comes in the focus on two people over five hundred or more pages - it's just too much for me.

Not long after plowing through much of the Michener backlist, I read Leon Uris' Mila 18, the story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising during World War II. While there were romantic elements, the story was so much larger in scope, and yet had an intimate feel. The epic romances of the 1970's, on the other hand, seemed forced - the authors had to throw so many obstacles at the couple that they invariably seemed artificial to me. Equally artificial is the constant moving from lust/love to hate, then back to lust/love once more.

While the older, epic-styled romances did more to turn me off romance than to turn me on, there's an entire group of romance readers who remember them fondly. Some crave this type of book and think today's romance novels are but pale imitations. As for me, I'll save my epic reading for those authors like Kathryn Lynn Davis who write with incredible lyrical, lush, and sensual prose - stories that may contain strong romantic elements but are not romances.

Where Have All the Wulfgars Gone?

"What’s wrong with our romance now?
Where have all the Wulfgars gone?
Make room for Ken and Barbie rocket, scientists extraordinnaire!"

"Recently I posted on the AAR Reviews Board. My post was in defense of older readers and our continued appreciation of many of the older, epic romances such as Kathleen Woodiwiss, The Wolf and the Dove. Many of the newer readers do not like these older romances, stating reasons such as the violence and cruelty toward the heroines, the purple prose, the flaws in the characters, etc. What did I first think when faced with the criticism of our blessed icons? And what was my initial reaction when Blythe and LLB asked, 'Would new readers enjoy them today?'"

"Don’t take it personally, but what in the hell happened to our sense of adventure, of spirit, of the ridiculous and insane fantasy world of fiction? What ever happened to the bad boy getting the girl? Or that thrill we got when reading about the heroine being thrown over the hero’s (oops villain’s) shoulder. Or the mistakes made along the way just spicing up the romance, or even the really, really stupid actions or turns we make when falling in love, before or after we walk down that rose-petal aisle? The ones that make you choke with laughter or even grit your teeth.

"Do we really expect our romance writers to give us Ken and Barbie all the time? Do you really expect your romance writer to be fair, always polite and act as the local ambassador of good will? Or as a pillar of our moral community? Spare me - what ever happened to originality, the element of surprise, and the hard but well-earned road to happiness? I mean, I thought our romance writers, were like gosh, well writing about humans here.

"Reviewers now use catch phrases like "TSTL" heroines and "The Big Mis" when describing a particular conflict between the hero and heroine - to explain or justify the reasons why they did not like a book. Do we really want to dissect our romances to the point that all writers follow certain moral guidelines and their characters only fit in the round slots?

"I mean, really, when was the last time you went for the underdog! The Wulfgar - you know, that man with many flaws, proud, warrior-like, unashamed and arrogant! (God, I am getting hot just thinking about him, sitting there high on his horse, helmet in hand! Looking down at me, just waiting to be knocked off that huge beautiful horse. Fan me, fan me! Whew!)

"Another question is: Are we and our reviewers being fair to our romance writers by attacking the personalities of their characters or the type of conflict they choose to include in their story? Do the choices that the characters make, or paths the writers have the characters choose, right or wrong really deserve to be included as reasons for a bad grade or review? What happened to reviewing a book on the quality of the writing, or the pacing of a book, or the general excitement of the story alone?

"And finally, where have all our Wulfgar's gone?! This question is not just about our older aggressive to some brutal heroes. What I mean by this question is this: When is the last time you really got to sink your teeth into a really good, developed, epic historical romance?

"The length of the books are much shorter today than they were twenty years ago. This almost gives authors no freedom of expression, nor any incentive to create really, really, rich stories. I miss my epic romances. Books and stories that I can’t finish during my bath or morning rituals.

"And to top this off, we criticize those writers that dig to deeply, or spend too much time describing things, by mislabeling rich description as purple prose. Or making things too complicated or too drawn out. Too complicated to whom? Not me, I know exactly what Woodiwiss meant, didn’t you? As I re-read Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and The Dove the last few day’s and compared it to one of the top rated medievals this year (I won’t say which, because I do not wish to put down the writer) it was like comparing a Monet to a cartoon.

"When someone tries to tell me that these books don’t stand the test of time, I will be brief and give it to you in language that you will most assuredly understand…. Maybe you need to stick with People Magazine articles!

"My point is this, if we want rich developed characters and stories from our writers, we need to learn about appreciating originality and language again as an art form, not as a fast pleasant exciting read that we can finish in the can."

-- Sandy Creelman aka Sandy C

Can Readers "Go Home" Again?
While readers such as Sandy C continue to love those 1970's romances, is this more the exception than the rule? I read a few romances back in my college years (1978-1982), including Jennifer Wilde's Love's Tender Fury, Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers, and Come Love a Stranger by Kathleen Woodiwiss. Written as epic sagas of love, loss, and love once more, these romances did little for me at the time except provide titillation for my burgeoning sexuality. I've already indicated that I think these books were too long for their subject matter, but there's more.

On one of our message boards, there's been a spirited debate on why romance authors aren't writing epic romances any more, and why so many readers seem to denigrate those older books. Have we become so politically correct, some say, that these older books, filled with more flawed characters, are unacceptable anymore? Some long-time readers also feel as though newer readers are somehow calling into question their intellect - if those older romances were so bad, mustn't those who loved them be stupid and/or tasteless?

Is it important to remember that the derogatory term "bodice-ripper" grew out of these books? AAR Reviewer/AARlist Moderator Anne Marble, our resident gothic expert, and a long-time reader of romance, reviewed Karen Robards' Sea Fire, which was also reviewed by DIK/Cheat Sheet Editor Ellen Micheletti. Ellen had actually read the book back when it was first published in 1982 - neither she nor Anne had much complimentary to say about the book in 1998. Apparently, it hasn't aged well.

I'm not here to trample memories, only to perhaps remind us all that experiences are almost always more fondly remembered than the original experience. How many of us look forward to creating elaborate Thanksgiving dinners because they remind us of how wonderful families coming together at holidays are? Sometimes these 20-year-old Thanksgiving experiences were wonderful, but for many of us, our memories have cast a rosy glow on what wasn't originally all that rosy.

I'm not saying that there aren't readers who read Woodiwiss back in the 1970's and still think those old books are still fabulous - clearly there are readers for whom this holds true. And, it's important to give Woodiwiss and those early romance authors their due. They are clearly an important branch on the romance family tree. For a myriad of long-time romance readers, these books will always have a special place, but for many, it's only a sentimental place.

But many other readers who loved those books have outgrown them, and for some of us who came to the genre later, those older books can seem like parodies rather than serious efforts. I've been lucky enough to interview many romance authors in the past several years, including those who began their careers back in the 1970's. To a one, they all say that today's romance writing is better than it used to be. It's crisper, less likely to suffer from "adjectivitis," and the characters are more grounded in reality than they used to be.

The "Reasonable Person" Test:
AAR Editor Marianne Stillings first coined the phrase "Romance and the Reasonable Person" in an April 1998 issue of the old At the Back Fence (when it was called Laurie's News & Views). Not too long ago, I read a few romances that reminded me of Marianne's piece, and suddenly it all came together for me.

When I apply the "reasonable person" rule to romances, some fail to pass the test. What exactly is this rule? Ask yourself the next time you're reading a romance and the hero or heroine or villain or secondary character does something that seems to only occur in the world of romance novels: Is this the action of a reasonable person? Does their behavior "fit" what a real person would do or does it seem a contrivance to further the plot or create/extend a conflict?

AAR's review staff has sometimes been criticized for focusing on things like behavior and character as opposed to the "overall craft of writing," whatever that means. When one of us complains about a heroine's having too many moments that are in the too stupid to live category, that's not a sign that we require politically correct writing, it's a sign that the author was careless and advanced the story at expense of character. Isn't that part of the craft of writing? To make sure plot flows from character?

Similarly, if a hero behaves in a fashion a reviewer considers immoral, she may or may not forgive him. She is less likely to forgive him if his action does not seem the act of a real person. She is also less likely to forgive him if his action seems to come out of nowhere, like a written non sequitur. If it does not seem "genuine," it may seem to that reviewer that the author had the hero act in this manner to further a conflict or the plot. Not every action taken by the hero and/or heroine has to seem reasonable, but too many or those that seem too conveniently out of character indicate some sloppiness. On the other hand, she may just find him morally repugnant and unworthy of her forgiveness. After all, romance novels, unlike general fiction, in order to be successful, require that readers like both the hero and the heroine by the end of the book.

Let's take for example Anne Stuart's A Rose At Midnight, which begins with the heroine trying to poison the hero. She blames him for the death of her parents to the guillotine and her having to become a prostitute to save her brother and herself. The hero is thoroughly debauched; he was debauched when he knew her in France as well. His actions, although immoral, fit his character - he behaved as a spoiled and debauched person. I adore this book; others I know found Nicholas too dark. Yes, he was dark, but his behavior rang true, political correctness be damned.

Contrast that behavior to the hero and heroine in Johanna Lindsey's A Pirate's Love. I found that neither the hero nor the heroine ever approximated reality in this book. Setting aside the politically incorrect multiple rapes that occur in the course of the story, let's just focus on the emotions expressed by the hero and heroine. They ranged, as I said in my review, "from petulance to jealousy, from anger to lust, with very little in-between." These were not well-developed characters, to say the least.

Then there's the heroine's behavior in Sue Civil-Brown's Carried Away. Whenever the hero engages in some moment of physical intimacy with her, she blows her stack, creating conflict until he touches her boobie again in thirty pages (I'm kidding here, but you get my drift). There's no real sense of why she behaves like this other than that it generates conflict, which propels the plot. The behavior is not character-based, and is defies the theory of Romance and the Reasonable Person.

Another book that fails to pass the "reasonable person" test is Barri Bryan's A Single Thread in which there's going to be an arranged marriage. The hero tells the heroine it's going to be a chaste marriage because he has no time for virgins. She lies and tells him she's practically a slut. Now, both are lying, but this virgin-pretending-she-isn't concept is truly a romance novel convention. Had she lied like this so that he'd change his mind and sleep with her, even though this is 1907, it would have made a tiny bit of sense. But her lie was one of those "feisty pride" moments known only in the land of romance novels at their worst.

Contrast these two examples with the behavior of the hero and heroine in Andrea Kane's upcoming contemporary romantic suspense debut - Run for Your Life. In general, I find romantic suspense too violent, too focused on the suspense at the expense of the romance, and/or often lacking in character development. Run for Your Life suffered from none of these problems, and as I read it, I was struck by how the plot was driven not only by external events, but how the histories of the lead characters shaped the story. The hero and heroine were propelled through the story because of their wants, fears, and histories; they didn't simply react to outside events.

Victoria's fear of loving a man was rooted in her relationships with her parents and sister. Her father, who saw weakness as the worst of sins, has (and had) no respect for his wife or his younger daughter. As a result, Victoria is unwillingness to see that loving is not the same as dependence. This is at the base of her original break-up with the hero, Zach, and the difficulties she goes through as they reunite. As for Zach, his own tunnel vision regarding the death of his father at the hands of drug smugglers, and his mother's wasting away from grief a year later - all when he was an impressionable teen - also contributed to their initial break-up four years ago.

The manner in which author Kane dribbles out the details is expert. I initially couldn't understand why Victoria was so staunch in denying her continuing feelings for Zach. There's a wonderful moment in which Zach tries to convince her that, in loving him, she wouldn't be giving up her independence, and a later scene when her best friend echoes those words is quite wonderful. Andrea Kane's answers to my questions about character and plot and this book in general can be found in this Quickie.

Something else I liked about Run For Your Life - the villains and their motivations. I don't want to give any spoilers, but many romance novel villains so obviously do not fit the "reasonable person" test that one would think there's at least one psychopath in every family. Not only are these folks often certifiable, but they are also often incredibly brilliant - I had no idea MENSA was so filled with diabolical people!

When I look back, without fondness, on those early historical romances I tried in college, I don't find characters who pass the reasonable person/real person test. Of course, it is not just early historical romances where this is a problem - I've indicated two current books where reality has taken a back seat to plotting. And, I'll go further - some of my favorite authors seem guilty of this as well. Nora Roberts, for instance, sometimes writes heroes who are simply "too good" to be true.

I think it's important for me to say that I am not the arbiter of what is good and bad in romance novels. While I am not a fan of Woodiwiss, Rogers, or Wilde, it's clear that many readers love these older books. However, those of us who came to romance more recently, who fell in love with newer books, can't seem to "go home." What about more long-time readers?

Several long-time romance readers review for AAR, including DIK/Cheat Sheet Editor Ellen Micheletti. She used to "devour and wait with bated breath for each new book Kathleen Woodiwiss used to write." She finds this type of romance no longer appealing. She "can't enjoy purple prose, very much larger than life characters, and a melodramatic writing style" any more. She credits Woodiwiss with "starting the new generation of historical romances," but has moved on herself.

Ellen May Have Moved On, But Not Sandi:
Sandi Morris, our Technical Editor, is another long-time romance reader. Her credentials extend as far back as the old Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney gothics, and her first "real" romance was either The Enchanted Land (1978) by Jude Deveraux, or Johanna Lindsey's Captive Bride (1977).

While Sandi enjoyed both these books, it wasn't until she was introduced to Kathleen Woodiwiss that she fell in love with the genre. She writes, in part:

"When I was introduced to The Wolf and the Dove, I was absolutely amazed. It was completely different from anything I had read before, except maybe Gone with the Wind. I'm still a big fan of both Wolf and The Flame and the Flower. I cry every time I read them - Ashes in the Wind too. Maybe they aren't great literature and maybe they aren't written in a style that fits today's standards, but they were and are entertaining. They keep me engrossed in the story and take me to a place where it's just me and the story. And isn't that what we all want from a book?"

Sandi goes on to say that, just as the genre is put down by those "outside" it, lovers of the older style feel put down by those who prefer the newer style. There are those readers who believe only an august few "literary-style" romance authors are worth reading. There are those, like me, who derogatorily consider what she feels is descriptive writing "purple prose." There are those, like I used to be, who considered series (category) romance with disdain - "oh, are you reading one of those Harlequin romances?"

Sandi's "rule for romance" comes down to this: Did the author pull me into the story? I'd say that this is likely the rule for all of us, but that what pulls me into a story may be different than it is for her or Sandy C, and that what takes me out of a story may be exactly what is attractive for others. What I need is a story that is filled with characters I can love. I need a story that is written in such a way that prose adds to rather than detracts from my experience. I need a story that presents both character and plot in a believable fashion, that neither throws in the kitchen-sink nor rests on a flimsy contrivance. That's what I presume we all need, it's just what constitutes those characters, that prose, and that plotting that differs.

I hope I've presented a balanced set of viewpoints here. I'd like to hear when it's time to post, from long-time readers and newer readers, from those who continue to love the older style, those who feel they've "outgrown" it, and those who never appreciated it at all. And, because many of my own personal pet peeves, including what I deem purple prose, kitchen-sink plotting, and flimsy contrivances, continue to exist in many of today's romances, the discussion really isn't only about old versus new, but of personal tastes altogether. Because, as we stress all the time here at AAR, tastes are subjective and are only a matter of opinion. We are not here to second-guess what others may think, but will strive to provide a balanced picture when possible.

Accounting for Taste (by Robin Uncapher):

"Recently I posted on the AAR Reviews Board. My post was in defense of older readers and our continued appreciation of many of the older, epic romances such as Kathleen Woodiest, The Wolf and the Dove. Many of the newer readers do not like these older romances, stating reasons such as the violence and cruelty toward the heroines, the purple prose, the flaws in the characters, etc. What did I first think when faced with the criticism of our blessed icons? And what was my initial reaction when Blythe and LLB asked, 'Would new readers enjoy them today?'"

-- Sandy Creelman aka Sandy C
Okay, I’ll bite. Although I’m the same age as most of those “older readers” (forty-six) I have to say that many of the “older romance novels” - i.e. those of the late 70s and 80s leave me cold. It’s not that I’m too young to remember them. I suspect it is just the opposite. Many of the biggest fans of these books read them in junior high and high school, the age that I was at when I was devouring Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart.

I was out of college and working during the “bodice ripper” period of the late seventies, the heyday of Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rodgers. A friend of mine at work loved them and lent me Sweet Savage Love and Love’s Tender Fury. Since I loved history and romantic stories I looked forward to reading them. Sorry to say not only did I not enjoy them, they put me off reading romance for almost twenty years.

Why didn’t I enjoy these books? Why don’t I like them now? Is it because I’m a snob? Is it because I require my heroes to be upstanding and my heroines to be feminists? Did I apply some kind of arbitrary standard to the books and decide that they were not acceptable?


They bored me. In fact they bored me so much that I regard Blythe’s D for The Flame and the Flower to be kind. I don’t enjoy these books because they are seldom historically accurate. They feature characters who are simplistic and not drawn from life. More to the point - the writing style of the authors of these books is to me, overly verbose. Why can’t I just relax and enjoy them for fun? Hey, I would if I could. I like fun as well as the next person but I don’t like being bored. That’s not fun.

Maybe its because I enjoy books which are, as Laurie says, at the upper end of the romance feeding chain. This could be true. Laurie and I joke about the contrasts in our tastes. While Laurie talks about her “peasant tastes,” my tastes may be at the other end of the spectrum.

Does that mean I think that readers who enjoy Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rodgers are idiots? Of course not. A negative review of a book is neither an attack on the author of that book nor an attack on its admirers. But a reviewer simply cannot review a book by second-guessing who else might have an opinion on it. As Laurie herself wrote on one of our message boards recently, "We cannot second-guess ourselves and grade according to what others might think were they to read the books in question - that would be dishonest."

My guess is that any reviewer will tell you that that writing that first review of a previously unknown book is a revelation. The ARC may be for an unknown author or a famous one but no one has told you, the reviewer, whether it's worth recommending. You have to decide that and back up your opinions. You are not adding your opinion to someone else’s (as you are used to doing in entering a discussion on the Reviews Board). You are making the first statement as to the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Rightly or wrongly, your words may frame much of the upcoming discussion.

The difference for me between writing a review and reading one is like the difference between driving and riding in the car. When I write a review I can only go with my gut and say how I personally felt about it. Giving a book a higher grade because I suspect that someone else might like it is simply not possible. It's too confusing. What if I'm wrong? If I read a book and write the review honestly, the people who read the review will know my assessment of its value, nothing more. Fortunately or unfortunately - that is the best I have to offer.

So where do my opinions come from? Why is it that some readers loved these books when they came out, while I just didn’t see the appeal, and still don’t?

Every once in a while I hear two people complaining about the popularity of a television show or movie, something neither likes, something that mystifies them. All of the reasons not to like this thing are clear to both of them. Then to wrap up the discussion one will say, “there’s no accounting for taste.”

It’s a popular expression and, of course, what it means is, “I don’t understand that opinion.” But the truth is that, like anything else, taste is explainable. You can account for taste. My own taste is fairly easy to account for. I spent a fair amount of time in childhood reading Victorian novels and the blockbuster historical novels of people like Kenneth Roberts, Margaret Mitchell and James Clavell. I read and still read lots of historical biographies. I know that those books influenced me and helped shape what I think is good and bad in fiction writing.

My favorite books led me to want to read stories with characters who remind me of real people, who seem to go through the same things I’ve gone through. I like direct language that is descriptive, interesting witty dialogue and lots of chemistry. Who is to judge whether I am right when I decide that a book has these qualities? Well, I am. Only I can explain what I enjoy and do not enjoy.

I read my first Woodiwiss this year, A Season Beyond a Kiss. It is written in the “old style” of romance writing, which as far as I can determine, is a kind of faux 19th century prose. My first problem reading A Season Beyond a Kiss was simple. It was literally difficult to understand. Here are a few sentences that I quoted in the review:

"If not for the intrusion of a predacious blackguard, who, with his hired rabble, forced his way into the plantation house on her wedding night, and the barrier she had personally set between her bridegroom and herself a day later after hearing a young wench accuse him of siring her unborn child, Raelynn had no doubt she would be sharing not only her husband's bed, but all the pleasures to be found in matrimony."

This paragraph is not atypical. The whole book is written this way. I read a lot of old books and yes, I’ve done my share of slogging through the difficult and verbose language of times gone by. Shakespeare is no easy read and even Dickens can be a chore if you hit the wrong book. I’ve read a lot of Victorian poetry including Byron, Tennyson, Browning, and Thomas Hardy, much of which needs to be memorized to be really understood. But the difference is that when you do take the trouble to understand The Merchant of Venice, you are astounded at Shakespeare’s insight into the good and evil in all men. When you put time into understanding A Season Beyond a Kiss what you have is stereotypical characters, a silly nonsensical plot and wall to wall sex. For me, it's not worth the effort.

No one knows better than I do that our taste is a personal and sensitive subject. After all I’m a woman who has gone from being admired for her taste by friends and family, to having many of them shake their heads in disbelief. It’s hard to learn that something you love is simply not admired by others. But as a reviewer all I can do is be honest and “go with my gut.” And, of course, be willing to welcome those of you who disagree with my opinions. That is what makes life interesting at All About Romance.

More Books of a Lifetime:
It took me more than 25 years to track down Emmy Keeps a Promise, which apparently had more influence on my future reading than I'd ever realized. When I shared my story with AAR's staff, I realized I wasn't alone - both Mary Novak and Colleen McMahon had books they'd spent a lifetime looking for. Because you might as well, I'd like to share their stories with you now:

My Book of a Lifetime

For more than half my life, the book I would have moved heaven and earth to obtain was Daniel Pinkwater's children's novel Alan Mendelssohn, The Boy From Mars. Daniel Pinkwater is unquestionably my favorite author, having made the list every year since I was six. Many people who have heard Pinkwater on All Things Considered have no idea that he has written nearly 100 books for children over the last 25 years. Alan Mendelssohn was an early one, and has always been my favorite. There is no good way to summarize the book and convey its many charms. It's basically the story of a junior-high outcast who hates his wretched school and Stepford-ish suburb until he makes one good friend, then the pair have outlandish adventures. It's brilliant, and subversive, and hilarious, and from ages nine to twenty-two I would have done anything to get a copy. (Except steal it from a library, because people who do that have their own special circle reserved in Dante's Inferno.)

Over the many years of my Alan Mendelssohn quest, I became adept at sizing up used bookstores and library sales. I learned the heartbreaking limitations of pre-Internet rare book searches, and I incidentally built up a pretty impressive collection of more than half of Pinkwater's other books, but all to no avail.

Then I discovered the Internet.

And rec.arts.books.children, and online book searches, and listservs, and e-mail. Even with all that, it still took a year to track down a copy. I eventually found three. The first two were ratty paperbacks, but the third - pay dirt. For eight dollars, I got the same hardback, same wonderful dustjacket, as my library had. (I've never known which 1970s children's librarian at the Bryan Public Library had the taste and humor to acquire nearly all of Pinkwater's books as well as delights like Graham Oakley's Church Mice series and very early Rosemary Wells, but I'm profoundly grateful. That place shaped me.)

After all that searching, I don't even remember exactly how I found the book, but here's what I do remember. One of my first Internet communities was rec.arts.books.children, and I became something of a Pinkwater-Prosthelytizing Pest. Whatever topic someone needed, I could probably recommend a Pinkwater title that might fit the bill. After many such posts, I brought him up in yet another thread and referred to him as "my own favorite doughnut, Daniel Pinkwater." (I got that phrase from a book about Saturday Night Live; it seemed to fit.) You can imagine my delight when one of the replies began:

"I am proud to be your favorite doughnut."

Naturally I followed up - like lightning I followed up - and we have corresponded off and on ever since.

On top of the heady pleasure of befriending my childhood idol, there was a terrific dividend. Not long after we "met," a publisher decided to re-issue five of Daniel Pinkwater's out-of-print novels. They called it Daniel Pinkwater: 5 Novels. They included Alan Mendelssohn. And they decided to use quotes from fans in place where the blurbs from Publisher's Weekly and AAR usually go.

Here is (basically) what I wrote:

"The kids in these books are intelligent, creative, and self-reliant. They don't accept authority blindly, and they give their respect to adults who deserve it. When I grow up, I want to be just like them."

After a 13-year quest, I am now quoted on the back cover of my all-time favorite book - now in its 8th edition and counting. I accomplished little else that year, but I don't consider it wasted. Not at all."

My Book of a Lifetime

As a precocious middle-schooler, I attempted to read the kids' book section of the library in alphabetical order. Each book, whether it grabbed me or not. Silly and sort of obsessive-compulsive in retrospect, but it did introduce me to some authors I might not have found otherwise (whose names all begin with A - I didn't get that far!). Lloyd Alexander. Louisa May Alcott. And Joan Aiken.

I read every book by Aiken that the library had. I loved her mix of realism and fantasy, suspense and looniness. One of my favorite books was one called Armitage, Armitage Fly Away Home, and it concerned the adventures of a family whose mother had wished on her honeymoon that her children have interesting adventures, particularly (but not always) on Tuesdays. So there were stories featuring a ghostly governess, a unicorn named Candleberry, and various other things. It was a charming and humorous book I returned to again and again.

Joan Aiken is still pretty well known, especially for her Mortimer the Raven, Dido and Is Twite books. But Armitage seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth. I would ask librarians about it and get blank looks. Antiquarian bookstores knew nothing of it. And, which has a long list of Aiken's long out of print books, makes no mention of it.

I signed up for Amazon's Auction Alerts, looking for Joan Aiken books, and daily opened the email bulletins to disappointment. Herds of offers for Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket, as well as her regency romances for adults (Castle Barebane in particular appears to have had a huge printing).

Finally one day, I found a copy of Armitage offered through one of Amazons "Zshops". I wasted no time in contacting the dealer, and within 10 days I had the book. Joy! It's an ex-library hardcover and missing the dustjacket, but I'm overjoyed to have it and have already re-read it several times. I'm pleased to report that it holds up. In certain respects it reminds of the Harry Potter books, and it's surprising to see that what appealed to me 20 odd years ago as a reader is similar in some ways to what appeals to me now - I have devoured Rowlings' books with the same enthusiasm I once did with Aiken's.

Time to Post to the Message Board:
Here are the questions we'd like to have you consider this time:

Books of a Lifetime - Do you have a book, like myself, Mary, and Colleen, that you've looked for over a large number of years? What was it, and how did you finally track it down? And, if you're still looking, perhaps our other readers can help! Finally, have you read either of the three books showcased - Emmy Keeps a Promise, Armitage, Armitage Fly Away Home, and/or Alan Mendelssohn, The Boy From Mars? What about Mrs. Mike?
The length of romance - Is there anything to my idea that, beyond a certain page count, romances become difficult to read? Were you ever/are you now, a "buy by the inch" reader? Do you prefer longer fiction and shorter romance, vice versa, or think the entire idea is full of hot air? Is it harder to read a longer romance than it is another type of book?
Where have all the Wulfgars gone? - Do you miss the epic romances as written by Woodiwiss, Rogers, and Wilde? Let's specifically consider the "bodice rippers" of the 1970's and early 1980's and not other types of romance we've talked about in earlier "branches of the romance family tree" columns. Do you tend to agree with Sandy C that there's something missing in today's romance? Do you agree with her statement that today's romance is filled with "Barbie and Ken" characters and that books are written for shorter attention spans (sitting on the john reading?)?
Can you "go home" again? - There are some readers who fell in love with "early" style of romance writing. Some still prefer it, but for others it is just a nice memory. Do you find that today's romance has crisper writing, less purple prose, better characterization? Or do you miss that "old" style, believing it was more emotional, honest, and descriptive?
Romance and the "reasonable person" test - Do you ever find yourself wondering if a real person would do some of what heroes and heroines and villains do in romances? Given that romance is a fantasy and not reality, how important is this? How do you think the "reasonable person" test fits in terms of older versus newer romances? What books from yesteryear as well as today pass or fail this test?
More about reason and reality - What books have you read that struck you as having very "real" characters? What books have you read that utterly fail the "reasonable person" test, whether or not this is something you've noticed in the past? Are these books ones that occasionally have a character do something or behave in a certain way simply, so it seems, to take the plot from point A to point B? Or, are these books where the characters never seem real?
Where do you fit? - Anne Marble and Ellen say they've outgrown the romances they once loved; they don't stand the test of time. Sandy C and our own Sandi still love some of those originally-read romances. As for Robin and me, we never loved those oldies. Where do you fit on this continuum?
Accounting for Tastes and AAR's Reviews - What do you make of this statement: "We cannot second-guess ourselves and grade according to what others might think were they to read the books in question - that would be dishonest."? Are we doing a disservice to our readers by our review philosophy? And, by encouraging dissenting opinions/reviews/commentary, do we truly allow "all sides of an issue" to be discussed?

Click here to join aarmaillist
Click to subscribe to AAR's twice-monthly mailing list