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February 15, 2002 - Issue #133

"Reviewer's Choice"
By Blythe Barnhill

Last year I realized that while most of us at AAR vote in the annual reader poll, we don't really discuss our votes much, even among ourselves. I thought it might be interesting to see where we agreed and where we differed, and what book we would choose as our most romantic read of the year. I took on the same task this year, and while the two most common choices were pretty predictable, there are also some surprises. Many of us didn’t write the review for our favorite romance of the year, so here’s our chance to get in a plug for the books we think are the best of the best.

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Five on our staff went renegade this year, choosing books that were romantic in nature, but wouldn’t be strictly classified as romances.

Pandora’s Box Columnist Linda Hurst chose Robin Carr’s The Wedding Party (more women’s fiction than romance) as her favorite, though she is quick to note that she had a great reading year and finds her keeper shelves heavier than ever.
AAR Pollster Shelley Dodge chose Pilots Choice as her favorite. Pilot’s Choice is actually two books in one, and was quite favorably reviewed at AAR by Jennifer Keirans. Shelley had quite a bit more to say about this book.
"After going through my book journal I am going to have to say my favorite book of the year was a science fiction book with a central romance. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller put out a book called Pilots Choice that contained two novels - Local Custom and Scout's Progress. They will be published separately in paperback starting next month. The both were wonderful, but the second book, Scout's Progress, is my favorite.

"The society in the books is made up of clans and marriages are often arranged by the clan heads. In Scout's Progress, the heroine, Aelliana, had survived a brutal first marriage arranged by her brother (he knew how sadistic her husband would be and approved as he thought it would keep her in line). She now immerses herself in her work as a theoretical mathematician - but because her family does not value her, she tends to not value herself. This is a pity because she is brilliant - a true, break through genius. One of the first things she ever did as a professor was redo the space navigation logs so that pilots had better formulas to work with and much safer coordinates. Aelliana has always wanted to become a pilot, but her clan would not allow it. Because of her work and her involvement with teaching the math necessary to navigate to pilots in training Aelliana ends up getting a chance to become a pilot (she literally 'wins' her chance on a night out with her students as she teaches them the laws of math involved in gambling). She ends up training secretly and there she meets Daav.

"Daav is the head of a major trading clan, but is incognito as a type of vacation while he figures out some things about his life. When he meets Aelliana he not only realizes just how amazing she is, but thinks she is wonderful and values her for her incredible mind and for her ambitions. He also finds her something of a puzzle - it takes him a while to figure out what kind of treatment she has survived and what she still has to deal with from her clan and then he has to overcome some of the restraints in his own life to help her.

"This is exactly the kind of romance I love - two very strong and complex characters that recognize each other's strengths and fall in love because they feel completed by each other.

"Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have a true gift for dialogue. One reviewer pointed out that at times the dialogue in there books is reminiscent of Georgette Heyer. Although the time frames could not be more separate, I tend to agree. They have a true gift for witty dialogue and social comedy."

Shelley also notes that Carla Kelly’s One Good Turn was a close second, and that it was a good year in general for alternate reality romance hybrids. Bitten, Narcissus in Chains, and Dead Until Dark were all great reads for her. Reviewer Jane Jorgenson seconded Shelley’s praise of Dead Until Dark - and made it her choice for best book of the year. AAR's Technical Editor Sandi Morris chose the SF/Romance hybrid The Phoenix Code as her favorite romantic read of the year.

One Good Turn

by Carla Kelly
Bitten

by Kelley Armstrong
Narcissus in Chains

by LKH
Dead Until Dark

by Charlaine Harris
The Phoenix Code

by Catherine Asaro

Brand new AAR Reviewer Sandy Coleman also read some great books this year, but receiving her top nod was Diana Gabaldon’s The Fiery Cross. Like Sandy, I loved this book; it was nearly my choice as well. Sandy had these thoughts to share about her choice:
"I loved Katherine Sutcliffe's Darkling I Listen (which AAR Reviewer Marianne Stillings granted DIK status). I found it so engrossing that it even held my attention for a few hours during the horrible week of September 11th. And I thought Lisa Kleypas's Suddenly You was wonderfully sexy with a heroine I admired and a hero to die for.
"But for me it begins and ends with The Fiery Cross. Admittedly, the book would appeal solely to those who've followed the entire Outlander saga, but for us. . .wow. The characters of Jamie and Claire are so very real to me that I find almost everything about them endlessly fascinating - including the penicillin experiments!

"And while Gabaldon writes so eloquently about sweeping events, The Fiery Cross was an achingly intimate book. And the last line? So simple and so very, very beautiful."

Four books that are solidly in the romance camp and received one best book nod each.

AAR Reviewer Liz liked Suzanne Brockmann’s Over the Edge, but was so annoyed by the ending that she cast her vote in favor of the first book in Nora Roberts' Three Sisters trilogy, Dance Upon the Air.
AAR Reviewer Claudia chose Madeline Hunter’s By Design as her favorite.

Marianne Stillings’ choice could also be considered a buried treasure. Blackheart by Tamara Leigh is not a book that generated a lot of Internet discussion, but Marianne felt that it stayed with her more than any other book she’d read. Marianne had this to say about her reading experience:
"I didn't have time to read many of the "biggies" last year (even though I have them in my TBR pile), so the best book I read in 2001 is probably not going to be anybody else's choice: Blackheart by Tamara Leigh. I only gave it a B+ and in retrospect, I wonder why I didn't give it an A. But of the books I read last year, for some reason, this one has stuck with me."

Reviews Editor Mary Novak had a good romance reading year, but not a great one. She settled on Danelle Harmon’s The Wicked One as her favorite, but had this to say about her decision making process:
"There were some books that I liked very much, but nothing that muscled its way into my list of absolute favorites - I don't think anything even broke the top 50. The closest, I think, was Danelle Harmon's The Wicked One. Actually, it stayed with me for weeks afterwards because I was so frustrated that the family saga wasn't sewn up as neatly as I would have liked. I'm not a 'fan fiction' kind of gal, and yet I would lie awake mentally plotting out reconciliation scenes. Even though I didn't think the book was perfect, the fact that the characters were that real to me really says something, so I'll give The Wicked One my nod."

Three AAR staffers cast their vote for traditional Regencies; Anne Gracie's Tallie's Knight was the favorite of two while One Good Turn by Carla Kelly was the favorite of one.

Editor Ellen Micheletti made One Good Turn her top pick. A Carla Kelly fan for years, she was not at all disappointed with this year’s long awaited offering. Ellen expounds on both her reading year and her choice:
"Best romance of the year? Hoo boy that is going to be tough! For me, 2001 was the year of new discoveries. I read first books by two authors that impressed me so much that they both became automatic buys for me.

"I am not fond of medieval settings in romances because, even though I don't demand total authenticity, most medievals I have read are so pretty and sanitized that the authors might as well have set them in the 21st century.

"But in 2001, I read Danegeld by Susan Squires which gave us the Dark Ages of Britain in all their realism. It's sitting firmly on the keeper shelf. I love regency romances, and Anne Gracie simply blew me out of the water with Tallie's Knight and Gallant Waif. In a genre that can be rule-bound and stylized, Gracie has her own voice. Both her books were so good, I have multiple copies of each one."

"But as much as I loved these books, I will have to say that for me, the Best Romance for 2001 was Carla Kelly's One Good Turn. I know that all of us have had the experience of waiting for sequels with bated breath, only to be disappointed. One Good Turn is a sequel to Libby's London Merchant which came out in 1991 (and was recently reissued). Was the wait worth it? A resounding yes!

"I was touched by Benedict Nesbitt when he was introduced in Libby's book, and wanted him to have his own book. With so much anticipation, I was almost afraid to begin One Good Turn, but it more than lived up to all my expectations. It is a small masterpiece of a book and has everything I love about the romance genre. It told an excellent story with characters who were realistic people we could understand. And above it all, One Good Turn is about love, and its power to heal and make whole. I know I will be reading this book many, many, many times in the future."

As for Tallie’s Knight, it was something of a phenomenon at AAR and around the 'Net. Several of us were surprised to find one Monday morning that we had all bought the book over the weekend, and several more of us bought it in the next few days. If that has ever happened with an unknown author, I can’t remember the occasion.

Tallie's Knight was the top choice of AAR Publisher LLB, and her only DIK of a 2001 release. She had this to say about her choice:

"The characterizations were exquisite and the story-telling wonderful. Tallie's Knight took stock premises and made them new; instead of the "hero who needs to get an heir," Magnus was a hero who simply discovered he wanted to have children. This is a book that made me cry. More than that, though, it made me love reading romance again. It doesn't get much better than that...and, oh yeah, the details of travel during this period were fascinating. This is one of those books that could be submitted to The Lists under so many categories, a sure sign of a great read!"

AARList Moderator Anne Marble also chose Tallie’s Knight as the best of 2001, though she adds that much of her 2001 reading was outside the genre. Anne detailed some of the highlights of her reading year:
"My favorite romance this year was Tallie's Knight. My favorite non-romance with a romantic element was, believe it or not, Rats, Bats, and Vats by David Freer and Eric Flint - a fun SF novel where most of the characters are genetically enhanced rats and bats."

"For some reason, I didn't have many favorites published in 2001. Some of my favorites were recent books, like Holly Lisle's Diplomacy of Wolves or the first three Harry Potter books.

"Some of my favorites were published long before 2001. This year, most of my best reading material consisted of public domain ghost stories downloaded from http://www.blackmask.com. For example, Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla and Algernon Blackwood's The Willows. I enjoyed the ones with tragic love stories, such as LeFanu's Schalken the Painter and the ghost stories of Gertrude Atherton. From the campy creepy failed love story segment comes Charles Brockden Brown's The Spectre Bride.

The “runner up” in our reviewer poll was Paullina Simons' The Bronze Horseman, a book that so captivated reviewers and readers alike that discussions lasted for days.

Four reviewers found the epic, sweeping historical so engrossing that they wanted to do nothing else while they read it. One had trouble paying attention to her relatives during the holidays, because all she wanted to do was read. Another closed the book after the last wrenching word, then proceeded to flip back to the beginning and read it straight through again. AAR Reviewer Rachel Potter had a good year over all, and found most of her reading satisfaction this year with series romances and contemporaries, but felt that The Bronze Horseman blew everything else out of the water. It was also the top choice of ATBF Columnist Robin Uncapher (the one who read it during the holidays) and AAR Reviewer Heidi Haglin. Heidi added that she also loved Tallie’s Knight, which was her first Regency DIK. But in the end The Bronze Horseman was the one that stuck with her. AAR Reviewer Nora Armstrong, who wrote the DIK review of the book, made it her choice as well, and summed up the feelings of many readers:

"Don't get me wrong: it's not a perfect book. Many of the secondary characters are given short shrift, it goes on just a bit too long, Tatia often seemed to have an "I'm a doormat - walk on me" sign surgically implanted on her forehead, and there was that whole are-Shura-and Dasha-sleeping-together-even-though-we-know-he's-in-love-with-Tatia aspect. But it has everything I look for in a historical story: a bone-deep sense of time and place, characters whose welfare the reader cares about, and an unpredictable plot. This was, simply put, the most compelling book I read last year. Any book that can make me mad that I have to stop reading to answer the phone or even sit down to eat is a winner. And the fact that it stayed with me for weeks - months! - afterward, agonizing over the non-HEA ending, is further proof that I'm going to remember these characters and their story for a long, long time.

"Much as I loved One Good Turn (my #2 vote), Nez and Liria didn't linger as Tatia and Shura have."

My choice for favorite romance of the year beat out a field of strong contenders, including Tallie’s Knight, The Fiery Cross, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips' This Heart of Mine. I loved all these books, but Suzanne Brockmann's Over the Edge seemed to have it all. It was funny, touching, and even disturbing. The love scenes were hot, inventive, and utterly believable. When I finished reading it, I didn’t want to start anything else; I just kept rereading my favorite parts again.
In fact, top honors this year go to Brockmann's Over the Edge, which was not only my favorite, but the favorite of six of my AAR colleagues as well. Reviews Editor Jennifer Keirans, and AAR Reviewers Andrea Pool, Jennifer Schendel, Laurie Shallah, Teresa Galloway, and Colleen McMahon also rated it as the best romance of 2001, although Colleen mentioned that she enjoyed A Falcon’s Heart by newcomer Jayel Wylie, which Heidi had granted DIK status over the summer.

Where Over the Edge is concerned, it was the one "big" romance that seemed far and away the favorite at AAR. The Bronze Horseman, for instance, is historical fiction, and Tallie's Knight is in the much less widely read sub-genre of traditional Regency Romances. Brockmann, whose Tall, Dark, and Dangerous mini-series started the Navy SEALS trend, seems to very easily have transitioned into a single title contemporary powerhouse. While all seven of us could have waxed poetic on Over the Edge, Jennifer Schendel summed up her feelings about this book in a way that had many of us echoing “me too!”:
"Count me in the Over the Edge crowd. That book just rocked. It had characters that I liked, an intriguing story, and a pace that had me turning the pages. Each time I thought to put it down Brockmann would go in another direction and I'd have to follow.

"It's rare book that makes me feel equal parts satisfaction and frustration. I was happy for Stan and Terri and having read a great book when I was done; at the same time as being flabbergasted that Sam and Alyssa were not going to get together yet!

"It was the only book in 2001 that really blew me away. There were other good books, but that one really stood out."

The common thread that ties all our choices together is staying power. All of us are serious readers, and barring major life changes like new babies or increased job demands, we tend to read nearly a hundred books a year - and some read many more than that. Almost every reviewer made her choice because the book “stayed with her” more than any of the others. Voting ends tonight for our annual read poll, and in two weeks we’ll find out if the choices of the AAR staff are similar to those of our readers. We hope that you’ve taken the opportunity to vote and let your voice be heard, and we look forward to hearing your reactions to our reviewer top picks.

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Sarah Sproha Wins Our 5th Annual
      Isn't It Romantic? Contest

"My story brings us back to my college days. I had been seeing my, now husband, then boyfriend, since high school (we met when I was a senior and he was a freshman in college). It was my Junior year and I wanted to take a semester to go abroad and study. Jeff, my boyfriend of 3 years was not too happy with the idea, but knew it was important to me, so after much debate, off to Europe I went for 4 months.

"The whole next part of the story took place unbeknownst to me. I was in Europe and talked to him about once a week, but had no idea whatsoever of what was happening at home. For weeks he hung out at the local bar with his friends until one night, missing me, he got an epiphany. A few nights later, Jeff (who likes my parents and spent a lot of time out our house while I was away) pulled my father aside and asked him his permission to marry me (yes this is 1992, not 1792). After my father picked his jaw up off of the floor, he told my hubby-to-be that that was fine with him, if it was fine with me, though he would prefer if we finished college before we got married. They then spent the next few weeks looking at rings and making plans.

"I had arranged, before I left, that Jeff was going to meet up with me while I was in Vienna in April. I had a week off, and thought it would be great to spend with him. He, meanwhile, was plotting. He arranged to have us stay at a 5 star hotel and since I had been backpacking for the past 3 months, I thought that was a great idea. (Still clueless on the proposal thing.) I figured that Jeff was just trying to pamper me after 3 months of hard living in hostels, sharing bathrooms with 30 other people, rooms with 10 others, etc.

"So, off flies this 21 year old to Vienna, and having never traveling abroad before, this was a little nerve wracking for him (traveling all alone). He meets me in Vienna and the first day he just tries to get over his jetlag. The second night, we had dinner at our hotel's 5 star restaurant (Now, you have to understand, this is not so very unusual for us. We went out for nice diners fairly regularly, so I am still clueless as to alternative motives). The dinner was wonderful, 5 courses, delicious Viennese deserts (we were in Vienna after all), champagne (my favorite drink), and time to catch up with each other. It was April, springtime, so after dinner we went for a walk outside in the newly blooming gardens. (Honestly, all I was missing was the strolling violins.) We sat on a park bench and he took my hand (also not unusual) and slipped a beautiful ring on my finger, proposing to me. I was floored to say the least. We had talked about getting married, but that was some nebulous time in the future. Never, in a million years, did I expect a proposal, in Vienna, in a garden, during my Junior semester. Of course I said yes, and we've been married almost 8 years now." -- Sarah Sproha

LLB: Congratulations, Sarah! You should have already received your $15.00 amazon gift certificate. And to the others who submitted entries in this year's contest, thanks for participating. To Caryl Garcia in particular, I'd very much like to see you re-submit your story in next year's contest.

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Time to Post to the Message Board

We know you all want to talk about your favorite romances (and even romance hybrids), so we're not going to stop you now! We can't see ourselves asking, "What did you think about my choice as best romance of the year?" so there will be no individual questions this time around - just an open forum for you to start talking about the books presented in the column and others you loved from 2001.

The March 1st issue of At the Back Fence will present the winners/losers in our annual reader's poll. It will include, as always, analysis of the biggest winners/losers and comments from some/most of the winningest authors. You'll be free at that point to share why you agree or disagree with the results.

In the meantime, though, feel free to talk about the books you loved from last year; you'll probably convince someone to try a book they hadn't considered; in fact, if reading this column does that for you, we're thrilled.

-- Blythe Barnhill
In conjunction with the entire AAR staff, but with added thanks to
Shelley Dodge, Sandy Coleman, Marianne Stillings, Mary Novak, Ellen Micheletti,
Anne Marble, Nora Armstrong, and Jennifer Schendel

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