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Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

January 15, 2003 - Issue #153

We do certain things at the same time every year at AAR, and January 15th is one of those times. Robin presents her annual look at the previous year in reading - along with some help from her AAR colleagues. She also opens up her annual discussion of buried treasures. LLB shares results of a recent survey, kicks off an annual contest now in its 6th year, and begins the polling process for our seventh annual reader poll.

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An Overview of 2002 (Robin Uncapher)

When I think back on my reading year of 2002 the word that comes to mind is reliable. This was a year when the auto-buy list began to pay off and writers I have been following for years produced book after book with few disappointments. Reading romance has a seasonal quality to it that I’ve come to love. Back when I read literary fiction it was often torture to wait years for a highly anticipated book. Most romance writers by contrast produce one or two books a year. A few, like Nora Roberts, write so many books that it's hard to keep up. Though this is undoubtedly tough on writers, it has an advantage - readers become close followers of their favorite writers and actively look for the latest offering.

This year was my fourth year of "serious" reading romance and I finally felt that I was getting into the groove of reading new books by favorite authors as they come along, as opposed to spending most of my time reading backlists. Just about all of my favorite authors came through with very good books, including Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, Julia Quinn, Suzanne Brockmann, and Lisa Kleypas, to name a few. Like many romance readers I grade all the books I read. This year almost every 2002 book I read by an auto-buy author was at least a B. The two exceptions were Gaelen Foley’s Lord of Fire (which got a C+ due to an over the top opening) and Donna Simpson’s A Country Courtship. (I gave this one a C- . I liked it better than our AAR Reviewer but it was still a big disappointment from this author.) The books I read included works by both contemporary and historical authors. Some of my auto-buy authors include Adele Ashworth, Julia Ross, Carla Kelly, Donna Simpson, Diane Farr, Julia Justiss, Gayle Wilson, and Rachel Gibson.

I read 65 romance novels this year, 36 of which were new. This is about a dozen more romance novels than last year. Here's the breakdown of sub-genres, beginning with the sub-genre I read most often (contemporaries), and ending in what I read least often (SF romance):
Contemporary 17
Regency Historical 11
Traditional Regency 9
Victorian 9
Series Romance 8
Georgian Historical 3
American Historical 3
Medieval 2
Women's Fiction 2
Science Fiction 1

Laurie and I have been talking about this and, for both of us, what stands out about 2002 is the absence of the big blockbuster romance. There were many very good books published, but not many inspired the kind of passionate following that seems to come from a book like these from 2001: Over the Edge, The Bronze Horseman (my favorite book of 2001), or Tallie's Knight. It is not just that people liked those books. They loved them and message board discussions reflected that. Even now the excitement among Bronze Horseman readers regarding the publication of the sequel is tremendous and posters often ask about it on our message boards.

What do I mean by a blockbuster? I mean the kind of romance novel that people run out to get because everybody is talking about it. Last year’s arrival of Anne Gracie is a good example. When a passionate reader posted about her two 2001 (US) releases, something like 11 of us at AAR ran out to get the books, and our enthusiasm for the books in turn interested so many of our readers that discussion about this previously unknown Australian author went on for weeks. When I think of the past three years at AAR there seem to be a number of books that readers (including me) almost could not mention without gushing. But I can't remember extended and expansive gushes regarding 2002 releases.

One book that did inspire a lot of excitement this year was Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mister Bridgerton, in part because it revealed the identity of the elusive Lady Whistledown, who has been an ongoing presence in her recent series. I read Romancing Mister Bridgerton soon after it was released and, as promised it was a lot of fun. Julia Quinn is an auto-buy for me and it continued the almost perfect record of A's and B's that I had with my favorite authors. Was Romancing Mister Bridgerton a blockbuster? No, not really. Once the secret was revealed readers seemed very happy with the book - but not inordinately passionate about it.

Some very interesting things did happen this year with regard to romance though. In contemporaries Mary Jo Putney published a wonderful contemporary, The Spiral Path, which I found as absorbing as her best historicals. Nora Roberts published Chesapeake Blue, a fourth book in the well known series about the Quinn family. In the area of traditional Regencies Donna Simpson produced four full length books and had stories in a number of anthologies, while Carla Kelly published The Wedding Journey. Mary Balogh published A Summer to Remember, a book which was written in much the same format as her traditional Regency Romances and which she revealed to us was a kind of “Regency in disguise.”

Every year when I write this column I ask my fellow staffers at AAR what they consider to be a buried treasure and every year this becomes more difficult. The problem is the discrepancy between books that are well known in the online community versus those that are known in the general public. Some of Adele Ashworth's romances are huge favorites of AAR readers and reviewers. Wintergarden (one of my favorite books of all time) won the 2001 AAR Reader Poll. But Adele Ashworth is, unfortunately, not very well known to the general public. Are her books buried treasures? They are not within the narrow confines of AAR since my telling ATBF readers about them would not constitute a big surprise. Carla Kelly’s books present a similar problem. One Good Turn was eagerly awaited by many readers in 2001, though the average off-line romance reader has probably never heard of her and those who don't read traditional Regencies most likely haven't read her.

I read a number of romances in 2002 that I consider to be buried treasures. In the annual reader poll we're kicking off at the end of this column, we've changed the category and definition of "buried treasure," which in previous years was about authors considered buried treasures. This year's poll changes all that and asks you to consider which 2002-published romance was the greatest buried treasure. I'll be choosing from among several romances, including Julia Justiss' My Lady’s Pleasure, Gayle Wilson’s Her Dearest Sin, Julia Ross’s The Seduction, and Donna Simpson’s A Matchmaker’s Christmas. And then there are the following two books I'd like to highlight that seemed quickly to have disappeared from discussion:

  • Love in Bloom’s by Judith Arnold
    In this contemporary set in New York City, heroine Julia Arnold is a young attorney whose grandmother asks her to take over the family business, Bloom’s Delicatessen. New Yorkers will quickly deduce that Bloom’s is a thinly disguised Zabar’s, the famed food emporium on New York’s upper West Side. There’s a romance in this book but the hero is less important than in most romances. What sets this novel apart is Judith Arnold’s wonderful characters most of whom are part of Julia’s eccentric family, the realistic depiction of a family business and well done portrayal of New York City. In a genre filled with small towns here is a book for city people who love the traffic, noise, and excitement that goes along with living in The Big Apple.

  • The Edge Of Heaven by Teresa Hill
    Emma McRae is a college student returning home from school after being beaten by her boyfriend when she meets Rye Ryan, a man looking for her adoptive father. Rye is man with secrets. The chemistry between the hero and heroine in this book is very strong. The heroine is much younger than the hero, a fact that might have bothered me had the book not been so well written.
As always I asked my AAR colleagues about their year in reading and which books they consider buried treasures. Teresa Galloway wrote that she read very few 2002 novels - none were DIK's, although she did enjoy Diane Farr's The Fortune Hunter. LLB's buried treasure book of the year was The Beach House, by Mary Alice Monroe. She said, "Although more women's fiction than romance, I thought this book was truly wonderful and was sad that it didn't seem to be widely read." Another buried treasure for LLB was Donna Simpson's short story in the My Dashing Groom anthology. Though she talked about it in previous ATBF columns, she seemed to be alone in doing so.

Blythe Barnhill had one important buried treasure to recommend. “My buried treasure for 2002 is, without question, Shades of Honor by Wendy Lindstrom. It's a fabulous book set in post Civil War New York, and is actually the author's first book too. Those who complain about sterile, uninspired settings in American historicals should pick this one up while they can."

Jennifer Schendel also liked Gayle Wilson’s Her Dearest Sin. She wrote, “I love all her historicals and wish more people would read her." Jen's other buried treasures for the year would be Julia Ross's The Seduction, Dee Henderson's True Valor (her books are always just shy of perfect), and Julie Miller's In the Blink of an Eye."

Jane Jorgenson thought Still Mr. and Mrs. by Mary McBride was surprisingly good. She wrote, “After looking back at my reviews I'd add Final Stand by Helen Myers, and though I know her second book was pretty poorly received, I DIK'd A Question of Honor by Nita Abrams. And I really think Christina Dodd made a tremendous comeback with My Favorite Bride.”

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Our Year in Reading (Blythe Barnhill, Jennifer Schendel, Jennifer Keirans, LLB)

Blythe Barnhill

My primary emotion while I tabulated the results of my reading log this year was embarrassment - embarrassment that I had only read 70 books, which is a very, very low number for me. Family problems and house-selling made this a less than banner year numbers wise, but I am hoping that 2003 will be much better. It also wasn't one of my better years because I didn't read a lot of the books I really wanted to get to. The latest Anne Gracie and Mary Balogh are still tbr, but I'm hoping to squeeze them in before I cast my vote in our annual reader poll.

The books that I did manage to read break down as you see them to the right.

If I don't review a book, I don't give it a grade; it's just one of my little quirks. Of the books I did review the grades break down as you see below:

A 2
B 10
C 17
D 6
F 2
European Historical 18
Contemporary 12
Alternate Reality 10
Traditional Regency 9
Series Romance 8
Series Romance 8
Fiction 4
American Historical 4
Medieval 2
Young Adult 2
Inspirational Romance 1

The new year has me wishing for a little more reading time, and fortunately I am off to a good start.

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Jennifer Schendel

I read 121 books in 2002, less than the 151 I read in 2001. I've just been too busy this year to read as much as I'd like. Out of the 121, 56% were published in 2002. As you can see, I don't read a lot outside the genre, hmmm...I may need to broaden my horizons and try more new things in 2003.

European Historical 24
Medieval-Renaissance 16
Series Romance 15
Romantic Suspense 15
American Historical 11
Contemporary 11
Historical Fiction 6
Mystery 6
Alternate Reality Romance 4
Non-Fiction 4
Women's Fiction/Chick Lit 3
A.R. Fiction 2
Inspirational Romance 2
Women's Fiction 2
I consider 2002 to have been a pretty average reading year. There are 9 fewer 'A' books that in 2001 and 11 fewer than 2000 (when I started keeping records), but I also read fewer books. So definitely an average year for me.


DIK 11
B+/B 38
B-/C+ 39
C/C- 12
D/F 21

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Jennifer Keirans

I read 137 books in 2002 - 44 were for review and 24 were rereads. This is the first year I've kept records, and I didn't separate the romances by sub-genre, so I don't know if I've read more Victorian romances than Regency-set historicals. But, I can break it down by fictional type:
Romance 88
SF/Fantasy 24
Mystery/Suspense 16
Fiction/Non-Fiction 9

I had only two DIK's in 2002, and only one was a romance novel, so it was a pretty dry year for me in terms of romance reading. But I did have several "Aha, great author, must glom!" moments with these authors: Sandy Hingston, Anne Frasier/Theresa Weir, Cheryl Reavis, Gaelen Foley, Julia Justiss, and Lynn Kerstan. There were some good books in 2002, but not many great ones.

My favorite sub-genre - alternate reality romance, whether futuristic or fantastic - proved very inconsistent in 2002 with some severe ups and downs. Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion and P.C. Cast's Goddess by Mistake were among my best reads of the year, but both have 2001 copyrights, and neither are genre romances. As for 2002 published AR Romances, several were entertaining and interesting, but none were keepers for me. At the other end of the spectrum, all three F's I gave in 2002 were for AR Romances, and I was disappointed in some others as well. My conclusion is that though there are some very talented writers moving into this sub-genre, it still has a long way to go.

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LLB

While 2001 marked the year I began to read a great deal of traditional Regency Romance, which continued in 2002, 2002 was really my year to discover Young Adult Fiction. 13 of the 92 books (14%) I read in 2002 were YA books - and all but one earned grades of B- or higher. Thankfully I read no book in 2002 that earned an F.

I went on two author gloms in 2002, reading 6 traditional Regencies from the 80's written by Kasey Michaels (spurred by Harlequin's reissue of a few of the books early in the year), and seven of Nora Roberts' romances, beginning with Chesapeake Blue in early summer. Having not read a Roberts romance in two years, Chesapeake Blue, which I granted DIK status, so invigorated me that I read six of her newly reissued series titles in a period of about six weeks before putting an end to my binge.

I've broken out my list of books differently than my AAR colleagues. Here's the breakdown of 2002-published books I read last year. Remember, these represent less than half the books I read in 2002. And although more than 75% of the books I read in 2002 were romances, it turns out that only 37% were published in 2002.
Series Romance9
Contemporary9
European Historical7
Traditional Regency4
Fantasy/Horror3
Medieval-Renaissance3
YA Fiction3
Women's Fiction2
American Historical1
Romantic Suspense1

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More on Buried Treasures (Robin Uncapher)

A problem every year is determining just what constitutes a buried treasure. Is an author a buried treasure, or are particular books buried treasures? If an author is well-respected online but is not a huge seller of books to the wider romance-reading public, is she a buried treasure? If a well-received book is in a less widely-read sub-genre, is it a buried treasure? Such are the semantics involved. Here's my list of books I'd consider buried treasures based on our 2002 reviews, but some of the authors listed may be rising stars. (Consider, for instance, Stef Ann Holm's Girls Night. There was a fair amount of discussion surrounding this book, but it was her first contemporary after years of writing Americana Romances. As such, she's new to the whole group of readers who don't read historicals, but she's on the cusp of being a rising star.) Although I've read some of these books, I plan to read more before voting in our 2002 Reader Poll, which will be kicked off today. How about you?

2002 Buried Treasures
Title
Author *
Voting Category
The Knight and the RoseIsolde MartynMedieval - Renaissance
His BrideGayle CallenMedieval - Renaissance
A Question of HonorNita AdamsEuropean Historical
Duel of HeartsDiane FarrEuropean Historical
The Fortune HunterDiane FarrEuropean Historical
An Honorable ThiefAnne GracieEuropean Historical
Not So InnocentLaura Lee GuhrkeEuropean Historical
An Affair to RememberKaren HawkinsEuropean Historical
My Lady's PleasureJulia JustissEuropean Historical
The Golden LeopardLynn KerstanEuropean Historical
The SeductionJulia RossEuropean Historical
A Family for GillianCatherine BlairTraditional Regency
The Storybook HeroAndrea PickensTraditional Regency
A Reckless BargainElizabeth PowellTraditional Regency
Come What MayLeslie LaFoyAmerican Historical
Shades of HonorWendy LindstromAmerican Historical
The Edge of HeavenTeresa HillContemporary
Girls NightStef Ann HolmContemporary
Mother of the BrideLynn MichaelsContemporary
First Comes LoveChristie RidgwayContemporary
The Perfect VictimLinda CastilloRomantic Suspense
Lady LibertyVicky HinzeRomantic Suspense
Final StandHelen MyersRomantic Suspense
Now You See MeTina WainscottRomantic Suspense
The Night in QuestionHarper AllenSeries
Maternal InstinctJanice K. JohnsonSeries
Her Secret ThrillDonna KauffmanSeries
All Tied UpAlison KentSeries
Secret GamesJeanie LondonSeries
The Great Bridal EscapeBonnie TuckerSeries
George and the VirginLisa CachAlternate Reality
Fantasy LoverSherrilyn KenyonAlternate Reality
River of EdenGlenna McReynoldsAlternate Reality
I Think I Love YouStephanie BondWomen's Fiction **
Just Over the MountainRobyn CarrWomen's Fiction **
*No links provided for books previously linked in column

**There is no Women's Fiction category in our annual reader poll.
We list these titles for those who don't read outside the genre.

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How Many 2002-Published Romances Did You Read? (LLB)

This column kicks off our annual reader poll - which enters its seventh year. Before you link to either the ATBF Message Board or the poll page itself, I want to share with you the results of a poll just concluded at AAR. We asked: Of the romances you read in 2002, what percentage were published in 2002? This is an important question for a number of reasons, beginning with my own curiosity. I've been reading fewer new romances in the last couple of years and wanted to find out whether I'm part of an online trend. And, I have a theory regarding at least part of the reason there weren't "boffo blockbuster" romances in 2002. My theory is this: after online readers are exposed to authors and sub-genres that are new to them, they begin to specialize. They start to read deeper into sub-genres and less widely across the genre as a whole. As readers get more into specific types of romances, I believe, they start to pursue backlists and read older books in those types, as opposed to newer releases. It's hard to be sure, but given the results (which unfortunately did not include romances re-read, which many readers did a great deal of in 2002 and cannot consider reissues new readers would have missed during their first release), it's something to consider.

Percentage of Romances Read That Were Published in 2002
1 - 25% (132) 26%
25 - 50% (152) 30%
50 - 75% (143) 28%
75 - 100% (84) 16%
Number of Votes: 511

I've no way of knowing - really - how representative or unrepresentative online romance readers are as compared to all romance readers, and having never polled on this question before, it's hard to know whether this represents a trend in any particular direction. My sense is, though, that all this reading of older material cannot be good for the current state of romance publishing, and that the powers that be need to pay attention to what at least some group of readers seem to be saying: "We'd rather read older books than what you're publishing today."

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Two Important Announcements (LLB)

Today we kick off two annual features - our Isn't it Romantic? Contest, now in its sixth year, and our Annual Reader Poll, now in its seventh year. The Isn't it Romantic contest gives readers the opportunity to share their most romantic story and perhaps win a prize, which this year is a VHS copy of the 1984 funny and romantic movie, Sixteen Candles. The winning entry will be announced in the February 15th issue of ATBF, coinciding as close as we can to Valentine's Day. Please enter and make this the best year for this contest.

The links in the paragraph above and below are "jump" links that will open new windows in your browser. That's because I don't want you to close this column for the contest or poll before you read the questions related to this ATBF.
As you've picked up from reading this column, our annual reader poll begins today and runs through midnight, February 14th. We began this poll of the best (and worst) romances many years ago - our first awards were for romances published in 1996. This year we are obviously polling for books first published in the US in 2002. We've added a new category this year -Guiltiest Pleasure Romance - and have changed the names of three existing categories. Feistiest Heroine is now Strongest Heroine, and rather than voting for Best Discovery/Buried Treasure Author, you'll be voting for Biggest Buried Treasure Romance - the romance you believe was most overlooked from 2002. Finally, the Medieval Romance category has been expanded; it is now Medieval - Renaissance in terms of the period covered. In the future, if more and more books are published during the 1500's and 1600's, we'll add a separate category, but for this year, we've simply expanded Medieval so that it extends to the end of the Renaissance (we'll put that date at roughly 1700).

Mid-way through the voting process we'll be posting interim results. And because last year you asked, we've again provided a list of all the books granted DIK status by AAR Reviewers; you can find it on the ballot page (but if the review was written by a reader, author, or me, you won't find it on this list). Results of the seventh annual reader poll will be presented in the March 1st issue of this column. Please respect our request not to post your list of poll answers on any of our message boards until we've brought you the March 1st column.

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Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we'd like to have you consider this time:

this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Do you have a list of authors you automatically buy? Which authors went on and/or off your auto-buy list in 2002, and why?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Did you follow past romance reading patterns or develop a new pattern in 2002? If the answer is that you developed a new pattern, share it with us, and explain why.
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Do you agree or disagree that 2002 lacked boffo blockbuster romance releases? If so, what's your explanation for it? If not, which romances would you say were boffo blockbusters?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission We've asked that you not post your list of poll answers, but it's hard to do a column segment on buried treasures and not ask for yours, so we'll make an exception for this category. First, do you look at authors or books as buried treasures? Next, what books/authors were buried treasures in 2002? Finally, which authors became rising stars as a result of 2002?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Do you keep a written or computerized record of what you read, and if you do, do you assign grades or ratings? What did your records reveal about 2002?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Did you read more books in 2002 than in previous years, or fewer books? What about romances - did you read more or fewer in 2002?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission What do you make of the survey results regarding the percentage of "new" romances read in 2002? Were you surprised that so many readers read older romances in 2002? What's your theory on this, and how representative do you think online romance readers are in the wider world of all romance readers?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission If your percentage of 2002 romance releases was low, was it because you read older romances, re-read romances, switched your reading focus, or some combination of all three choices?


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