Laurie's News & Views

December 3, 1996 - Issue #16

Happy Holidays!

A Year of Reading:

Hard to believe 1996 is almost over! And for book lovers, most books with 1996 release dates have already been published. So it's time to reflect upon the past year's books.

If you're like me, this year you've read a combination of books from 1996 and those from other years as well. I've reviewed 53 books this year, and read countless other older books.

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It's time to think about 1996 books in earnest, and to see how this year's reads turned out for you in comparison to prior years. I only added two 5-heart books to my keeper shelf this year. I'm sure reviewing has made me more critical than I used to be. But I still have pretty simple tastes in romances -

  • Did it make me laugh?
  • Did it make me cry?
  • Did the love scenes make me warm all over?
  • Was I glad the hero and heroine got together?
  • Did I find the hero heroic, redeemable, loveable?
  • Was the heroine someone I'd want for a friend?
  • Was the story uplifting?

Regular readers of this column know I've been in a bit of a slump lately. I've only rated one book better than average since summer. Still, I'm hopeful 1997 will start better than 1996 ended, book-wise.

The year wasn't a total wash for me; I did read many 4-heart books, just not many lately. Overall, I gave the same number of books 4 hearts this year as I have done each year. However, I did nearly double the number of 1-heart books I've read in just this past year as compared to the three years before 1996.

Here is a summary of my year of reviews:

  • 5-heart books 6%
  • 4-heart books 34%
  • 3-heart books 32%
  • 2-heart books 17%
  • 1-heart books 11%

I've set up a ballot at The Archives. When you're done reading this column, link below directly to the ballot form and fill out your ballot. The categories are based on the Special Title Listings we've begun here, as well as categories we've talked about, and are listed here, along with my personal choices:

  • Favorite Funny - The Wedding by Julie Garwood
  • Most-Hanky Read - All We Hold Dear by Kathryn Lynn Davis
  • Most Luscious Love Story - Scoundrel by Debra Dier
  • Most Tortured Hero - Cordero from Day Dreamer by Jill Marie Landis
  • Feistiest Heroine - Samantha Neely from Denim & Lace by Pat Rice
  • Favorite Hero - Sheridan Blake from Scoundrel by Debra Dier
  • Favorite Heroine - Lily from Scoundrel by Elizabeth Elliott
  • Favorite Couple - Lily and Remington from Scoundrel by Elizabeth Elliott
  • Best Road Romance - A Taste of Heaven by Alexis Harrington
  • Favorite Romance - Scoundrel by Elizabeth Elliott
  • Best Discovery - Christina Skye
  • Author You Glommed Most - Jane Kidder
  • Author You Gave Up On - Bertrice Small
  • Most Disappointing Read - The Sex Test by Patty Salier
  • Purple-est Prose - The Sex Test by Patty Salier
(After we're done with 1996, I'll keep the ballot form up for all-time favorites in these categories.)

You may have noticed that this is not a typical list of categories. You can vote in more traditional categories at The Romance Reader. These awards are very unofficial, and more in keeping with this column.

If you're like me, you'll have some difficulty filling out some of the categories. For example, my choice for Favorite Funny of 1996 is Julie Garwood's The Wedding. While it is my Favorite Funny for 1996, it's not an all-time Favorite Funny.

So, how did this year's worth of books turn out for you? Did you read lots of 5-heart books? More than usual, less than usual? Please e-mail me here with your responses.

And, I'm still interested in hearing from readers who have worked themselves out of reading slumps. Some of you switch to mainstream fiction, others to other genres, and others (gasp of horror) take a break from reading altogether. Please e-mail me here with your responses.

Long-Time Readers:

And, while we're on the topic of all-time favorites, filling out the ballot and hearing from long-time readers has caused me to re-evaluate my own keeper shelf. Many readers said their old favorites don't work for them anymore - they're too dated in terms of style, tone, and character. And, most long-time readers are much tougher to please.

So, what qualifies someone as a long-time reader or a newbie? For instance, I've read 200 romances in the past four years. Am I now a long-time reader? Is it the number of books read or the length of time read? Because when I reflect on my thirty 5-heart books, they hold up. But then, all of them were written after the mid-80's, when the style of romance shifted from the "old" to the "new".

As I stated earlier, I've only added two 5-heart books to my keeper shelves this year. As a matter of fact, most of my 5-heart keepers (77%) were read in the first year I began to read romance. Has my romance with romance worn off? Is this a huge case of the "first as favorites" syndrome? Have I moved into the "been there, read that" phase?

After hearing from many of you, I have determined I am not a long-time romance reader - even many readers with at least five years of romance reading and hundreds of titles under their belts, whom I would consider long-time readers, do not consider themselves long-timer readers.

From what I have deduced from my e-mail, a long-time reader is one who has been reading before the "new" style of romance came into vogue. As such, it is difficult to separate long-time reader versus newbie and old style versus new style when discussing readers and their tastes.

Most long-time readers who contacted me were both of the mind that they preferred the newer style of romance but that they were harder to please after having read so many. Still, nearly every reader who responded said that even a plot that's been overdone can be turned into a good book if the author is skilled in terms of character creation and good old-fashioned story-telling.

Among the comments I received are these:

Long-time romance reader Kathy's list of all-time favorites has 13 titles, the majority of which were published in the 1990's. Her thoughts on the "new" style:

"There are certain aspects of the 90's style romance I enjoy, like heroines who are not virgins; hoydens and hoydenish behavior is a lot more common; and heroines dressing up in pants and being good at 'manly pursuits'. 'Heroes' rarely force/rape their women in the 90's, they are much more aware of the woman's satisfaction during love scenes and finally, they are much more willing to share responsibility for their family, their fortune and their future with the female. I can't believe I've been keeping score all these years! These are all good changes, IMO."

While at the national RWA conference this summer, I spoke with many authors who think the quality of romance writing has improved greatly from the early days of flowery prose filled with adjective after descriptive adjective. Romance Reader contributor Dede Anderson, who weighed in on the topics at hand, said, "As a long time reader of romance I'm not sure if it has made me pickier. I actually think I was always that way! Now we have many more books to choose from than we did a few years ago. I do like the way books have evolved. . . I know authors like Woodiwiss and Busbee that I used to enjoy now seem unbelievably wordy to me - sort of like they're paid by the comma! I don't even mind re-reading old familiar story lines if they are well written and entertaining. What I hate are the absolutely inferior books. . . ."

A complaint from a couple of long-time readers, who happen to be authors as well, is that while they like much of the new style (and write it very well), they sometimes miss the epic quality of the older romances. Lisa Ann Verge and Patricia Rice wonder if there's still room for the epic romance as written by authors such as Kathleen Woodiwiss in The Flame & the Flower. Rice admits that Woodiwiss' style is a bit dated these days (she says, "At last count, one of Woodiwiss's newer books had three adjectives per noun and two adverbs per verb"); still, she can relate to other long-time readers who crave the more heavily detailed tales.

I agree with another e-mail sent to me by Patricia Rice; romantic fiction does offer readers something different than other kinds of fiction. While it is true that most stories, romances or not, adhere to one of many basic plots, romances are ultimately about characters and about love. I doubt we'll run out of characters, and I certainly hope we'll never tire of love.

Reader Tiffany agrees with most other long-time readers; she believes a good writer can make an old plot new and fresh. She adds that the broadened labeling of what constitutes romance can help keep the genre fresh. She says, "I also think the recent years, which have seen a breaking down of the terms which were once used to define 'romance', are terrific. Now we have futuristic romance, romantic-suspense/intrigue, paranormals, time-travels, not to mention, the tried and true historicals and contemporaries which have always been with us."

Reader Ann reflects on the changes in the genre:

"I consider myself something in the middle, having picked up my first romance somewhere around 1983. So thirteen years may not be an eternity, but I have seen a lot of changes over the years. The rape scenarios (thank God) have disappeared, Time Travel and the Netherworld have become accepted plot devices (unlike when they first began appearing) and, to a large extent, heroes and heroines have become more realistic. I like those changes. The heroines were cookie-cutter, perky and petite little Rodgers & Hammerstein ingenues; the heroes were macho meatheads. Since romances started selling so well, authors are willing to take an odd turn now and then. . . Anyway, at its simplest, I think the rule that applies to every other literary genre applies here as well: if a book is well written, with good, strong characters that evoke emotion from the reader, than it doesn't matter when it was written."

Perhaps the change in style and substance from the old to the new is just a reflection of the changes our society has gone through since Kathleen Woodiwiss wrote The Flame & the Flower. The woman's movement had just come into its own, women were in college less to get an Mrs degree than to start a career, and the sexual revolution had just graduated from the Woodstock generation to permeate the suburbs, the middle class, and adults in general.

As women matured, both as individuals and as a group, realism started to creep into romance. Women were not marrying men for economic reasons - we started having careers. So the "man as protector" theme started to change. Not every hero was old enough to be his heroine's father. And because women were becoming empowered in real life, we wanted to read about heroines who weren't always 18 years old.

As reader Cathy wrote, "In the nineties, authors continue to push the edges of the romance envelope, and now the risk is that readers will be turned off by overly graphic sex and depraved stuff that looks like what we see on the news at eleven. The good news is that previously taboo elements such as older heroine/younger hero, homosexual side characters, and spousal abuse can be handled in a realistic manner by some authors and still contribute to a great story."

I agree with Cathy as well. While many romances of today are dealing with critical issues that reflect our society, some authors are pushing the limits. In my interview with Thea Devine at this summer's RWA convention, she stated she wants to push the envelope of what is accepted sexually in romance and that she does so purposely.

How About a Good Spanking!?!

Is this a good thing? Should authors do this purposefully or should the changes occur over time naturally? This seems important as books written by authors such as Thea Devine, Susan Johnson, and Bertrice Small become more erotica than romance. It also seems important because a major force in the entire romance "industry", Romantic Times, seems to be leading the way in this change through its marketing of erotica.

No, I'm not talking about the ads for "spanking" literature that is sold in the RT classifieds, although I do wonder what that's all about (and if anyone knows, pleasee-mail me here. I'm talking about what is promoted in the rest of the magazine and in letters to those attending the RT book lover's conference.

So, what do you think? Do you like where some of these sexually adventurous authors are leading us? Should they move beyond mainstream romance and have their own category of erotic romance (and I don't mean those Iron Lace erotic novels either)? Are these authors' books truly even romances or are they erotic fiction, historical erotica or something else altogether? Finally, do you worry that the high profiling erotic romance is receiving just adds fuel to the fire that romance novels are no more than "masturbation manuals"? Please e-mail me here with your response.

Here's How it All Began:

Looking back at the books on my keeper list, and realizing that most of my all-time keepers were books I'd read at the start of my romance with romance, I started to wonder just how it was I got hooked. At the same time, I received a couple of e-mails from women who had been hooked by the same book as I, Catherine Coulter's The Sherbrooke Bride.

I re-read the book a couple of weeks ago and it still works for me. True, I'd forgotten some of the twists of plot, but I realized how much "stuff" Coulter put in the book. She is an author I am hot and cold on, but this book resonates for me 200 romances later. I think it will resonate still for me in years to come.

So how did this book hook me? Well, it wasn't what I expected a romance to be. Always a reader, but never a romance reader, I thought they were little old lady books for women who'd never married. Obviously, I was mistaken. This book had a less-than-beautiful heroine, a hero who couldn't control himself even though the heroine wasn't beautiful, the heroine suffered a miscarriage, there was wit, there was pathos, and there was steam. Obviously not for little old ladies.

Reader Chris bought The Sherbrooke Bride expecting not a romance but a ghost story. She was hooked immediately by the heroine. She says:

"I really identified with her because she felt awkward and plain in comparison to her beautiful sister Melissande. All the girls in my family are 6 feet tall and could be runway models. At 5'8 I always felt as if I didn't quite meet up to their standards. They're fashion queens and I've always preferred comfortable, practical LL Bean. Melissande was the fashion queen and Alex was the practical one who never got the new clothes for the season she never had because Daddy ran out of money. I was really rooting for Alex to get the guy of her dreams and leave her beautiful sister in the dust. They say nice guys always finish last and I had to read this book to see that statement proved wrong. Ever since this book I'm a sucker for a happy ending. I just loved it that the Plain Jane could get the good-looking rich guy, a title and the love of her life to boot."

A few days later, Chris e-mailed this postscript:

"Its a refreshing change to read about sex from a woman's point of view as opposed to Penthouse Forum. This is woman see sex or at I think they do. Now as for The Sherbrooke Bride, I just love (the hero) Douglas!!!!! Every woman should experience a Douglas at least once in her life. I just does something for one's ego when a man is soooo turned on that he's just fast and furious. The dialogue was great! He spends half his time explaining how great he usually is then blames everything including the bed for not living up to the legend in his own mind. It did my heart proud to see him finally get it right and he only had to realize that he was in love with Alex."

And so an obsession began. Chris informed me that she had to read, needed to read, books with characters with whom she could identify. After reading a large part of the Catherine Coulter backlist, she moved on to Johanna Lindsey, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Chris' experience parallels my own. I went from Catherine Coulter to Johanna Lindsey, to Julie Garwood, Anne Stuart, Teresa Medeiros, Katherine Sutcliffe, Rexanne Becnel, Judith McNaught, Jill Barnett, and Lisa Kleypas. Not a bad start, was it?

Chris and I both learned a valuable lesson from our first romances. That they are not so much fluff. That they teach history easily and enjoyably. That they can tackle important issues that affect us as people, women, and lovers. That they are uplifting and bring joy into our lives.

What was the first romance you read, and how did it hook you? Was it the romance, the hero, a personal connectedness you felt to the heroine? Are you like a couple of readers, myself included, who read a book dealing with miscarriage or some other wrenching life experience that actually helped you through that difficult time? Was it the love scenes? The humor that almost had you peeing in your pants? The pathos that had your husband running into the room wondering who died because you were crying so loud? Please e-mail me here with your response.

See if This Bugs You Too:

I was talking with an author friend of mine last week who writes for Harlequin Historicals. I have greatly enjoyed most of the HH's I've read. I find them to be a perfect length - around 300 pages. They can be read in a day or a long evening. Some of my favorite HH authors include Catherine Archer, Deborah Simmons, Suzanne Barclay, and Merline Lovelace.

Anyway, we were talking about her next book for HH and she told me she had been asked to cut the length by up to 10,000 words by her editor. The reason? The company has received complaints that the print is too small. Rather than increasing print size and book length so as to maintain the current word count, they would rather reduce the word count and maintain the current price, which at $4.99 is a great deal.

I think the HH's are fairly spare at their current length. To reduce the word count risks them becoming category romances. I think this is a mistake for an historical novel. Category romances work as contemporaries because there isn't the need for exploring the setting as there is in an historical romance. Historical romances need additional length to explore the nuances which bring the reader into the setting - both the time and the place.

If you are a fan of Harlequin Historicals, please e-mail me here with your name, e-mail address, and brief comment. I would like to send a group e-mail to Harlequin to make our views known.

Okay, Here's What To Do Now:

I'm signing off now and will be back in a couple of weeks. Cathy Sova will be exploring the category romance in a mini-guest column sometime this month, but I'll slip in a few comments of my own.

Have a Happy Hannukah, a Merry Christmas, a delightful Kwanza, and an otherwise joyous holiday season! If I missed your religion's winter holiday, I'm sorry. Feel free to enlighten me!

 

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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