January 15, 2004 - Issue #174

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 - which also features her annual discussion of buried treasures. LLB kicks off an annual contest now in its 7th year, and begins the polling process for our eighth annual reader poll.

A Look Back at 2003 (Robin Uncapher)

Every reading year differs, but I can't remember one that came out quite as 2003 did. Had you asked me at the end of November about my reading year, the best term to describe it would have been "uneventful." I read my usual group of authors and hit on some pretty good books, among them Edith Layton's To Wed a Stranger, Mary Balogh's three Slightly books and Rachel Gibson's See Jane Score. Recently I read Jo Beverley's 2003 book, Winter Fire, and liked it a lot. But something seemed missing in my romance reading this year and, I have to admit that I put many books down unfinished. Although I enjoyed the books I just mentioned there was nothing terribly exciting about them.

Book Type # Read
Eur Hist 14
Fiction 12
Chick Lit 8
Contemp 8
Regency 7
Non-fiction 6
Series 5
Mystery 3
Hist Fict 2

What a difference a month makes! By the end of December had you asked about my reading year, my answer would have been vastly different. Why the difference? Much of it has to do with taking my own advice in a column segment I wrote about trying new authors. If there ever was a year of Buried Treasures for me 2003 was it. Most of my favorite books from last year are by authors I had never heard of before December. Another big surprise was that two of my very favorite books, Do-Over by Dorien Kelly and Some Men's Dreams by Kathleen Korbel, were series titles. For someone who doesn't really read series romance, that is amazing. As I told Laurie when I was planning this column, "Hell has frozen over."

When I look back on the reading year as a whole, as I do every year in this column, things look rather dull. I read fewer books, and fewer romance novels, in total in 2003 than in any year since I have been reading romance. In total I read only 29 straight romance titles. Twenty of those were 2003 releases. The straight historicals I read - Paullina Simons' Tatiana and Alexander and Diana Gabledon's Lord John and the Private Matter - were both new and were romance related. I also read quite a few Chick Lit books with secondary romances in them. My stats work out as you see them in the chart to the right:

From the start my year reading romance seemed rather dull. One big problem I see now was that I was reading too many of my favorite authors. In addition to that, a long awaited book - Tatiana and Alexander - was a minor disappointment to me. Tatiana and Alexander is the sequel to The Bronze Horseman, an amazing romance featuring two lovers caught in the nightmare of World War II and the siege of Leningrad. While much of the sequel is gripping, the book re-covers an awful lot of the territory described in The Bronze Horseman. In addition to that, Simons' descriptions of 1940s New York include some hard to ignore anachronisms and I found the end of the book something of a letdown. I'm not sorry I read the book, though; it may be that virtually any book would have been a let-down after The Bronze Horseman.

So I went back to romance. What was I looking for? I'm not sure. The historicals I was reading seemed to reveal few surprises. The contemporaries were somewhat entertaining but, more and more, I found myself frustrated with unsophisticated heroines. Why were so many romance heroines doing things like running antique stores? Nora Roberts' Remember When seems typical in that regard. The premise of the mystery was good. The plot put the heroine in grave jeopardy. The hero was handsome and charming. Remember When is a good book for many, many readers. But for me it fell flat, probably because all the time I was reading it I had the eerie feeling of having read this heroine before, in slightly different circumstances.

Rather than let myself fall into a complete slump I began to broaden my reading. In 2003 I read more non-fiction than I have in years. Much of it read almost as fast as fiction. I loved A. Scott Berg's Kate Remembered, a touching memoir of Katherine Hepburn. Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend turned out to be as spellbinding as a horserace. It wasn't so much that horse that was compelling as Hillenbrand's wonderful telling of the stories of the people around Seabiscuit and the times in which he raced. Mike Stanton's The Prince of Providence told the tragic-comic story of the brilliant and doomed Mayor of Providence Buddy Cianci, and Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze told the fascinating story of two Peace Corps workers who teach in a University in the People's Republic of China.

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But I still was not reading romance. How to get back to where I wanted to be? I decided to branch out a bit and delve into Chick Lit, something I had not read too much of since reading the two Bridget Jones's books by Helen Fielding. I'm very glad I did this. Chick Lit has come a long way from Bridget Jones. The heroines are more varied, they don't all smoke, drink to excess or sleep with every guy they meet. The first Chick Lit author I tried was Marian Keyes. Though I generally avoid books about recovery from addiction Rachel's Holiday was so funny and self-deprecating I could not resist it. There is something special about a book where the reader can see more of what is going on than the narrator. I rated Rachel's Holiday a DIK in my reading log and gave solid B’s to Keyes' Watermelon and Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married.

But what really surprised me was when I began reading new books written in the Chick Lit vein. While Marian Keyes was writing about women who could easily be pals with Bridget Jones, other authors were writing Chick Lit books about female workaholics, moms, executives and corporate lawyers. Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada is purported to be a sharp look at the world of fashion publishing, but virtually anyone who has worked for a high powered executive will recognize the villainous editor Miranda Priestly. The Devil Wears Prada is the very funny story of a hapless Brown University graduate who ends up working as an assistant to the editor of a major fashion magazine. What has made the book infamous is that Weisberger was once the assistant to the editor of Vogue. But what struck me about the book was how completely female the two lead characters are. Miranda Priestly tortures her assistants not only professionally but personally by subtly criticizing their clothing, weight and make-up, something one could not imagine in a male executive. Many of the scenes are hilarious precisely because they are so recognizable.

As a result of all this 2003, will always be remembered by me as the year I began to view Chick Lit as more than a passing trend and could see that it is already having an impact on contemporary romance as well as other kinds of popular literature. I no longer believe that one can say, "I don't like Chick Lit," period. There are now too many books, too many stories, too many kinds of heroines. It's like saying you don't like romance novels.

A good example of this would be Allison Pearson's devastatingly funny and sad 2002 bestseller, I Don't Know How She Does It, about a female executive with children who is slowly losing her sanity and The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus which tells the story of one young woman who, in taking care of a wealthy little boy, gets to see the nastiest possible side of New York City society. Now this was something new. Both of these women, the nanny and the executive, were women whose stories simply were not being told anywhere in popular literature. They weren't romance heroines but they were real women and I identified with them far more than I did with many of the dry, damaged women I found in literary fiction.

But what does all of this have to do with romance? Just this. After years of readers complaining about world weary romance heroines who give up their 100K per year jobs to come home and run coffee shops in tiny Midwestern towns we are starting to see a few heroines who, wonder of wonders, work in real offices, have real problems and don't long for a suburban home filled with babies.

Had I written this column in November 2003 that's probably where my summary would have ended. Then in December something astonishing happened. I read four DIK books in a row. Nothing remotely like that has happened to me since the first year I read romance. Here they are:

  • My favorite Buried Treasure of 2003 is Do-Over by Dorien Kelly, the first romance I have ever read with a completely recognizable office romance. Heroine Cara Adams is a six year associate at a major law firm. The hero, and Cara's nemesis in the office, is the guy who is being brought in over her in spite of all of years slaving away.
    I absolutely loved this book. Not only was it very funny (Cara observes that one of her female co-workers could have appeared in her high school yearbook with the caption "Most Likely to Eat Her Young,") it was believable. Powerful people in Do-Over do not talk vaguely about "deals" - they know the details. They work like slaves, just like people in real law firms. The hero of the book, Mark "the Shark," has not progressed by magically "cutting corners." No, he has gotten ahead the old fashioned way - i.e. bringing in business and taking advantage of good old fashioned sexism. Oh yeah. That's another thing. The office in Do-Over is like a real male dominated office. Sexism is simply there, and it is not magically erased by anybody giving a "spirited" speech in the end.

    Do-Over is a series romance. Its part of Harlequin's new Flipside series, which seems an effort to meld Chick Lit with romance. I did read one other Flipside last year and I have to say it was unimpressive. Still the idea intrigues and I do hope that Do-Over is a sign of good things to come.

  • My second favorite Buried Treasure romance of 2003 is another series romance, Kathleen Korbel's Some Men's Dreams, a SIM release. Do-Over and Some Men's Dreams are two of three series titles I've ever graded DIK in my reading log. Korbel's story is a medical romance between two pediatricians. The heroine is strong, sensible and smart. The hero is older than the usual hero and has an adolescent daughter. Overall the story had me in tears for a good part of the time. Even if you do not read series romance I strongly recommend that you try this book. It's a series romance but it feels a lot like reading a single title contemporary.

  • My third favorite buried treasure romance was Kate Bridges' The Surgeon, which is a mail-order bride story set in the Canadian wilderness. The hero of The Surgeon is a Mountie. Like the hero of Some Men's Dreams, he is an older man of forty. This is a man who is so strong and yet has some real faults. The conflict between Sarah O'Neil, the heroine and John Calloway, the surgeon is just delicious.

  • My last favorite buried treasure is A Clean Slate by Laura Caldwell, not a romance novel. It's Chick Lit. But if you are expecting a heroine who weighs herself daily and presses *69 twenty times a day I am happy to report you are out of luck. As our reviewer Marguerite Kraft wrote "it's a fascinating, compelling, thought-provoking book about one woman's efforts to find five missing months of her life, and what she learns about herself and what she wants in the process." Like Marguerite I highly recommend it.

Our Year in Reading (Blythe Barnhill, Ellen Micheletti, Rachel Potter, Jane Jorgenson, Jennifer Keirans, Jennifer Schendel, Sandy Coleman, LLB, Megan Frampton, Teresa Galloway, and Marguerite Kraft)

As in other years I asked our AAR staff how their reading years had gone. Blythe Barnhill wanted you to know her buried treasure first of all - Julia Justiss' Wicked Wager. She wrote, "What a fun, compelling book! Why didn't more people read it and talk about it?" Then she described her reading year:

Book Type # Read
Eur Hist 13
Contemp 13
Regency 11
Gen Fict 8
Series 7
Fant Fict 5
Amer Hist 3
Medieval 3
Mystery 3
Non-Fict 3
Chick Lit 2
Alt Reality 2

"I was feeling a little disappointed in myself for reading so few books this year, until I reread last year's column on this subject, and realized that as low as my tally was, it was still higher than last year. I ended up reading 73 books this year. It's a low number that I am not entirely happy with, but at this stage in my life I am wondering whether 100 books is even possible anymore. The books I read break down this way:

"I think the word that best describes my reading year is 'lackluster.' This is the first year since I've been at AAR that I have failed to DIK a single new romance, which I find a little depressing. And my grades don't even tell the whole story: 9 of my 11 Bs were B- grades. In fact, most of the time I felt like my biggest reviewing decision was whether to go with a C+ or a B-. Judging from the numbers, I seem to have gone with the C+ a little more often. In my quest for something a little different, I read more non-romances this year than I have in the past. In past years I have turned to tried and true romance authors when I had a little non-reviewing downtime. This year I read the third, fourth and fifth Harry Potter books, started Pat O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin series, and even read some non-fiction. I wouldn't say that I am dissatisfied with romance as a whole; I'm never really one to say the genre is going to hell in a handbasket. Rather, I think of this year as a bit of an 'off' year for me. Maybe I didn't win the grand prize, but I did leave with a few lovely parting gifts."

Grades awarded (only on books reviewed):

A: 0% B: 31% C: 44% D: 22% F: 3%

Ellen Micheletti began keeping a reading log this year but lost all of her data in July when her computer crashed. Luckily she could still give us her recommendations for the best buried treasure books of the year:

  • "The Imposter and The Pretender by Celeste Bradley are the type of historical romances I love. Good plots, intelligent characters - what's not to like?

  • "The Nekkid Truth, short story by Nicole Camden in the Big Guns out of Uniform anthology, was original, engrossing, hot and sexy. I hope she writes a full-length book in 2004.

  • "The Wicked Wager by Julia Justiss was very good indeed. I've enjoyed her Harlequin Historical romances (she is one of my few auto-buys in that line) and if she can continue this quality in full-length historical romances, she'll stay on my auto-buy list.

  • "The Ideal Bride by Nonnie St. George was the funniest, most charming Regency I read in 2003. It's filled with little touches that made me smile, chuckle, and laugh out loud. The characters are a delight, and the book is a perfect specimen of how to do comedy. I haven't been this excited over a regency since I read Anne Gracie's books."

Rachel Potter read 92 romances in 2003 and 27 other books - fiction, YA, and mysteries. She adds that of those 92 romances, 40% were 2003 releases and of those 2003 releases, nearly 2/3 were B-'s for her or better. She writes, "The high rate of satisfaction can be explained by the fact that I only continue reading if I like it or if I have to review it. I tried a fair number of 2003 books and never got past the first couple of chapters." Rachel's 2003 buried treasures:

  • Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons
  • Still Life with Murder by P. B. Ryan
  • The Sea Wife by Holly Cook
  • The Still of Night by Kristen Heitzmann
  • A Rush of Wings by Kristen Heitzmann
  • The Last of the Honky Tonk Angels by Marsha Moyer

Jane Jorgenson shared her buried treasures - Almost a Gentleman by Pam Rosenthal and She Who Laughs Last by Jennie Klassel - as did Jennifer Keirans.

Book Type # Read
Non-Eur Hist 13
Contemp 13
Eur Hist 11
Alt Reality 8
Other Rom 7
Series 5
Regency 3

Jennifer read 135 books in 2003 and notes that for the first year since she started reviewing, she only awarded one F. She also had only one DIK romance for the year, for the second year in a row, but "discovered lots of good new-to-me authors." Here are the break-outs of her reading:

Jennifer's Buried Treasures:

  • The Sea Wife by Holly Cook
  • The Nekkid Truth by Nicole Camden
  • Under the Wishing Star by Diane Farr
  • Wicked Charms by Jayel Wylie
  • Traveler by Melanie Jackson
  • The Falcons of Montabard by Elizabeth Chadwick

Jennifer's Total Reading:

  • 76 Romances
  • 29 Other fiction
  • 5 Non-fiction
  • 25 Re-reads

Our other Jennifer, Jennifer Schendel, made these comments about her reading year:

"I was disappointed to see I'd read less this year, but I liked more books. All my D's and F's were in romance, I think I'm pickier when it comes to fiction, hence why all my fiction choices are A's and B's. There were a lot more books that I got really excited about this year than last and when it comes time to pick my favorite, it'll be much harder than in years past."

She was one of many who kept stats. She read 93 books in 2003 and just under half were published in 2003. Of those 2003 releases, here are her stats:

Book Type# Read
Series 31
Eur Hist 14
Rom Susp 13
Mystery 11
Fiction 11
Contemp 8
Alt Reality 4
Amer Hist 1
GradesFor All BooksFor 2003 Books
A19% 22%
B59% 48%
C11% 11%
D9% 15%
F2% 4%

Sandy Coleman read some "terrific books" in 2003, but what she most remembers about the year is that Judith Ivory and Connie Brockway, two of her favorite authors, didn't have a 2003 release, adding, "was there any big knock-out punch like last year's Bridal Favors and Untie My Heart? Sadly, no."

Book Type # Read
Romance 44
YA 12
Gen Fict 7
Horror 4
Hist Fict 4
Fant Fict 2
Mystery 2
Non-Fiction 1

LLB mentioned last time that her 2003 reading year was dismal; she read fewer books than she had since 1998. And most of her buried treasure reads were from earlier years or were not romances. Her reading breaks out this way:

As to why her genre reading was so widespread, she theorized:

"I think I jumped around so much because nothing really thrilled me. I know I lost oomph during the 6-week period when it was all war, all the time on TV, the newspapers, magazines, etc. And then when I realized that I graded up for romances that didn't have a suspense or mystery subplot, I knew I was in a rut. That wasn't long ago - thank goodness for Ellen!"

2003 offered LLB fairly slim pickings in terms of what interested her in current romances, but is delighted to note that 2004 has begun with a bang (she's whizzed through six romances thus far in 2004 - four of them Regencies - and four of the six earned grades in the B range). Her biggest buried treasure romance, read during the last week of 2003, was Nonnie St. George's The Ideal Bride, which she'd have missed entirely were it not for Ellen's enthusiastic kudos. That was the only 2003-published romance she awarded DIK status. Only two 2003-published romances earned grades of B+ - Barbara Bretton's Girls of Summer and Rexanne Becnel's The Heartbreaker. Although both of these B+ books are written by major authors, little has been posted about Bretton's since it was released this fall. And so LLB designates The Ideal Bride and Girls of Summer as her two romance buried treasures of the year.

LLB writes in her blog that she knew The Ideal Bride was something special when she "started to bookmark nearly every page because of something so funny" she wanted to later re-read it. She adds, "By the time the book had practically doubled in size because of papers shoved into it, I realized I had a winner on my hands." The book's tone, dialogue, double entendres, physical humor, characters, and romance all work wonderfully, from beginning to end, page to page. So enthusiastic is LLB about this debut novel that she's currently interviewing the author, whom she says is just as funny "in person."

As for Girls of Summer, LLB was most struck by its construction; although a romance it's got an almost Women's Fiction feel in that while there's definitely a romance going on in the story, the heroine has other things going on in her life. Her profession is an integral part of the story - the reader doesn't get the impression that she's a doctor in name only. Also, neither the hero nor the heroine are obsessed with each other in an overblown manner nor do they walk around like teenagers in heat, a very nice change of pace from the over-the-top lust that inhabits many of today's releases. Girls of Summer would have been a DIK for LLB had the ending not been quite so rushed. It isn't so much that everything is neatly tied up because while all the threads conclude, it's not necessarily "tidy."

Megan Frampton doesn't keep a reading list, but thinks she probably read “I between 100-150 books, with the majority being historical romance. And like LLB, Blythe, and others, she "didn't have a lot of buried treasure. Actually, I only had one and half. The first is MaryJanice Davidson's Under Cover collection (three novellas) and the half is Carla Kelly's Here's To The Ladies.

GradesFor All BooksFor 2003 Books
A25%
33%
B52%
40%
C16%
7%
D7%
20%

Teresa Galloway keeps stats. Of the read 57 romances she read in 2003, only 15 were published that year. Due to other responsibilities, she didn't review much, but finds it significant that all the D's she gave were to books she reviewed. For the most part reviewers request books for review, so what accounts for all these D's? In large part, "if I'm really hating a book that's not for review," says Teresa, "I won't finish it."Much of Teresa's reading in 2003 was devoted to "comfort re-reading," and she didn't read anything that qualifies as a buried treasure, writing that: "All my DIKs were for books by reliable authors or books already talked up by AAR."

Marguerite Kraft kept stats and wrote that "I read 143 books this year, 52 of which were published in 2003. (I spent some time reading backlists, as well as older SF and fantasy.) This was an interesting exercise, as it confirmed my suspicion that I read contemporaries and historicals in more or less equal amounts, with a few other things thrown in." Her buried treasure designees for 2003 are as follows:

  • Sweet Release by Pamela Clare
  • Take a Chance on Me by Susan Donovan
  • Got a Hold on You by Pat White
  • No More Lies by Susan Squires
  • A Clean Slate by Laura Caldwell

More on Buried Treasures (Robin Uncapher)

Our reviewers aren't the only readers we know who thought about buried treasures for 2003. Here's a list of titles suggested on one of our message boards; most were reviewed, and reviewed positively, here at AAR. Given that our annual reader poll opens today, I plan to check out some of the titles listed, as well as some of the above titles recommended by my AAR colleagues. How about you?

2003 Reader Buried Treasures
Title
Author
Voting Category
Getting Her Man Michele AlbertContemporary
The Pirate Next Door Jennifer AshleyEuropean Historical
Entrapment Kylie BrantSeries Romance
The Surgeon Kate BridgesHistorical (1889 Canada)
Prospero's Daughter Nancy ButlerTraditional Regency
The Scoundrel Claire DelacroixMedieval - Renaissance
Wild Orchids Jude DeverauxParanormal Fiction
Take a Chance on Me Susan DonovanContemporary
Valentine's Change of Heart Elisabeth FairchildTraditional Regency
Shades of Moonlight
Shades of Winter
Shades of Scarlet
Linda FallonAlternate Reality
The Conqueror Judith E. FrenchHistorical (Ancient Near East)
Everything I Ever Wanted
Everything I Ever Needed
Jo GoodmanEuropean Historical
Beneath a Silent Moon Tracy GrantHistorical Fiction
Once a Scoundrel Candice HernEuropean Historical
Do-Over Dorien KellySeries Romance
The Last Bride in Ballymuir Dorien KellyContemporary
Nobody But You Julie KennerContemporary
Fallen From Grace Laura LeoneContemporary
Into Danger Gennita LowRomantic Suspense
My Hero Mary McBrideContemporary
The Diamond Key Barbara MetzgerTraditional Regency
Courage Under Fire Candice PoarchContemporary
To Love a Scottish Lord Karen RanneyEuropean Historical
Then Comes Marriage Christie RidgwayContemporary
A Piece of Heaven Barbara SamuelWomen's Fiction
The Ideal Bride Nonnie St. GeorgeTraditional Regency
The Men of Thorne Island Cynthia ThomasonSeries Romance
Seven Days to Forever Ingrid Weaver Series Romance
License to Thrill Lori WildeContemporary
Prisoner in the Tower
Wedding Chase anthology
Gayle WilsonTraditional Regency

Two Important Announcements (Laurie Likes Books)

Today we kick off two annual features - our Isn't it Romantic? Contest, now in its seventh year, and our Annual Reader Poll, now in its eighth year.

The Isn't it Romantic Contest gives readers the opportunity to share their most romantic true story and perhaps win a prize, which this year is donated by Timeless Message. The contest's winner will receive a Valentine's gift from AAR on February 14th, courtesy of Timeless Message, which will allow her/him to send an old-fashioned message in a European crafted bottle to a loved one within a wooden crate designed to give a Renaissance feeling. (The public announcement of the winner will be made in the February 15th ATBF column, along with the story submitted.)

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 2003. We've added a new category this year -Favorite Chick Lit/Women's Fiction Novel.

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 eighth 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.

Time to Post to the Message Board

This column kicks off our annual reader poll, and as such is a look back at 2003 both in general terms and as regards buried treasures. We began to discuss the 2003 reading year in the previous issue of ATBF; feel feel to continue that discussion now, and to also talk about your 2003 buried treasures. While AAR staff in the main focused on buried treasures published in 2003, not all did, and neither should you be limited in your discussion. Because we'd like to "save" discussion of your favorite 2003 romances for a future column, let's frame this discussion around buried treasures. Obviously there will be some cross-over, but by framing it around buried treasures, we're less likely to duplicate discussion. And as buried treasures invariably lead to glomming, feel free to talk about that on the message board as well. Finally, if any of the titles listed in this column were buried treasures for you, now's the time to share that; other readers may pick up on your enthusiasm, coupled with ours, and read those books in time to vote on them.

Robin Uncapher,
Ably assisted by various members of AAR

 

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