February 15, 2004 - Issue #176

From the Desk of Blythe Barnhill:

Reviewer's Choice: The Year of Our Discontent?

In recent years at AAR, I've been lucky enough to prepare our Reviewer's Choice column in which staff share their favorite romances for the year just passed. It's also within this column that LLB announces the winner in our annual Isn't it Romantic? Contest. Sorry for the slow load time, but last year when we broke the column into two pages, not everyone understood there was a page two.

Our annual reviewer's choice poll has become a favorite tradition of mine, and one to which I really look forward. One of the reasons I enjoy it is because the column provides us with an opportunity to gush unabashedly about our favorites. As reviewers, we spend a lot of time wading through the good, bad, mediocre, and outright ugly, so usually we leap at the chance to reflect on the positive.

Usually. But this year, the main story seemed to be the lack of favorites. In fact, six staffers couldn't pin down a favorite at all, and that's twice as many as voted for the "winner." At first, I couldn't help sulking a bit as this unwelcome news dribbled in. This wasn't the column I wanted to write! But as I looked over everyone's comments, I began to change my tune. "No favorite" may not have been the story I wanted to tell, but there was no question that it definitely was a story. What is the source of all this malaise, and why did so many of our staffers want to pick no romance at all? The reasons, it turns out, are varied, and simply not presenting their stories or their choices seemed like a less interesting proposal than perhaps bringing to you books you might not otherwise have considered.

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Dee, our newest staffer, lives in Europe. She had a favorite, all right - Lisa Kleypas' Where Dreams Begin - but it was published three years too early. Why nothing newer? When revealing her inspiration for most of her reading this year, Dee said, "I...was mainly selecting reads from AAR's DIK list (and what a resource!)" It so happens that more than one reviewer had favorites from past years.

Reviewer Andrea Pool also found herself in the no vote camp, mostly because her reads from 2003 didn't quite stack up to favorites from past years:

"My best book would be The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch, but it's not a 2003 book even though that's when I read it. Two of my favorite authors had books out last year, McNaught and Brockmann, and while I loved them both, neither one was the best thing I've ever read. I liked Last of the Honky Tonk Angels, but not as well as its predecessor."

Publisher liaison Laurie Shallah found herself in a similar boat; her 2004 reads just weren't anything to write home about. The books she found herself recommending to other turned out to be old news. No 2003 romances stood out as spectacular for Laurie, who indicated that even her romance reading group selections were either "blah or more of the same old, same old." She added, "Everything pales in comparison to the two audiobooks by Judith Ivory that I've been listening to (The Proposition and The Indiscretion). Those books are what romance is all about for me. They were fun, sexy and, for the most part, centered around the couple. These were the only two books I found myself recommending to my reading friends (of course, they've already read them).

Sometimes, we simply run into the bibliophile's eternal dilemma: so many books, so little time. I'll cop to this one. Though I manage to make a choice every year, I also can't help worrying that my favorite of 2003 won't be discovered until years hence - when I finally read it. I try to put reviewing on the backburner during this time of year so I can read a few potential favorites, but there are always some possible bests that I just can't get to. Did I love Carla Kelly's Here's to the Ladies or Wendy Lindstrom's The Longing as much as I thought I would? Unfortunately, I don't yet know.

Anne Marble, who moderates AARList and co-authors the ATBF column, found herself in a similar position this year, albeit for a different reason. Many of the books she started to read ended up unfinished. But she doesn't blame the books - she just kept changing her mind about what she felt like reading. The best romance she read for 2003 was Bertrice Small's Enchantress Mine, but she didn't like it well enough to consider it a favorite. She suggests "getting back to me in a couple of weeks. I might have finished the first book in the Celeste Bradley series. Or maybe I will finally go for it and read Cry No More. Or the Nonnie George. Or I might... Hmm, I think I see what my problem is. <g>"

For editor Nora Armstrong, real life intruded this year, and she didn't read as many romances as she has in the past. She did, however, write a wonderful DIK review of the entire Aubrey/Maturin series by Pat O'Brien. She spent much of the year re-reading O'Brien's books, and also enjoyed Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles.

Out-of-genre reading was another common theme this year, and many of our staff found terrific books away from the romance aisle. I read and enjoyed the first Aubrey/Maturin book myself, and if pressed would probably have to admit that the two books that excited me most this year were written by J.K. Rowling and Al Franken - not romances by any stretch of the imagination. Several other reviewers, including Heidi, Jen Schendel, and Lynn, were similarly wild about Harry.

For reviewer Mary Novak, several factors contributed to her malaise. Life was busy, and reading time was far too difficult to come by. However, she also wondered if the genre wasn't heading in a direction that just wasn't working for her:

"As far as I can tell, romance has swung away from the think-y, theme-y stories-that-don't-take-themselves-too-seriously which were my favorite part of the genre. Everything I've picked up seems either too lightweight or too ponderous in a women's-fiction way. A number of authors I once considered best bets seem to be heading into creative decline, or at least are shaping their writing in ways that I presume make it more marketable, but less satisfying to me. I have faith that the pendulum will eventually swing back, or new writers will emerge to take up the mantle, but lately I find exploring romance to be a much more frustrating pursuit than I have before. I've also been reading the genre long enough that I don't feel as though I have any vistas left to explore - it seems as though I've already glommed all of the backlists I'm likely to enjoy."

And now, the good news: The remaining 23 of us all found at least one romance - or almost romance - to cheer about. Several staffers found favorites that were perhaps more fiction than romance, but still had strong romanc-y elements they enjoyed.

For Coming Attractions editor Bessie Makris, the favorite was Wen Spencer's Tinker. Bessie had this to say about her choice: "When I started reading it, I had no idea how much of a romance it was. Now I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Spencer will make it the first of a series." Reviewer Megan Frampton's pick was Sunshine by Robin McKinley, book she described as "Vampire Chick Lit." And Reviewer Heidi Haglin chose Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Avatar, a fantasy novel with a romantic subtext.

Three reviewers found favorites that were Women's Fiction or Historical Fiction. Special Title Listing's editor Rachel Potter's choice was Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons, a book that was ineligible for our general contest as it was not published in the US in 2003 - only the UK. Many of our readers joined Rachel in lamenting that fact. Rachel chose it because "It affected me emotionally more than any other book I read last year, even though I sort of feel that it is the "conclusion" of The Bronze Horseman, rather than an individual book all of its own." Rachel also mentioned The Sea Wife by Holly Cook, The Last of the Honky Tonk Angels by Marsha Moyer, and Still Life with Murder by P.B. Ryan as second choices.

Moyer's book was actually reviewer Jen Schendel's top choice. Although she DIK'd both The Time Traveler's Wife and See Jane Score, she chose The Last of the Honky Tonk Angels because she went so far as to buy copies of it and mail them to people. She added:

"I fell in love with the book. I enjoyed seeing the two main characters Lucy Hatch and Ash Farrell as they worked their way out of that first head over heels in lust stage of romance, to deal with a surprise pregnancy (and Ash's reaction that bit of news is priceless), his daughter from a previous marriage, and a new job opportunity, to a more settled steady relationship. Moyer took the simple and made it beautiful. While the ending is fanciful and romantic, Moyer keeps the story grounded in reality. Mooney, Texas seems like a real small town... [and] the people are real. The air of reality, the simplicity of the story, and the still forming relationship of Lucy and Ash all came together just right, to make the perfect story."

Editor Sandy Coleman found several good solid reads in 2003, but her favorite of them all was Tracy Grant's historical fiction novel, Beneath a Silent Moon. Sandy explained her choice this way:

"I loved the non-stop action of Gone Too Far, even if on reflection I am getting a little impatient with the author's tendency to drag story arcs out over too many books. (We have to wait how long for Max and Gina's story?) Cry No More was an incredible, emotional read - Linda Howard at her best. Susan Donovan's Take A Chance On Me was definitely my favorite funny of the year. (She deserves some kind of award for creating the most 'human' dog I think I've ever come across in fiction.) On the European Historical front (usually my favorite) Lisa Kleypas's Worth Any Price featured another one of the author's incredible bad boys and was a lush, sensual read. But topping them all this year was Tracy Grant's Beneath A Silent Moon. Charles and Melanie continue to mesmerize me, and this prequel to Daughter of the Game added new layers and dimensions to characters who grow more fascinating with each book. I can hardly wait for the next installment.  

For two of our staffers, series romances were tops. Reviewer Leigh Thomas reads a lot of series romance, so Some Men's Dreams by Kathleen Korbel was not a surprising choice. However, the choice was a still a tough one, since Candice Proctor's Beyond Sunrise was also a favorite:

"I don't know how I'm supposed to compare them since they're both completely different. Candice Proctor's Beyond Sunrise was light, fun and exciting, a blast to read. Kathleen Korbel's Some Men's Dreams was funny, gripping, and moving, a real emotional wringer. Procter's book was an action-driven adventure while Korbel's was a character-driven drama. Both of them had me hanging on every page, savoring what uncommonly rich stories they were. Ultimately I guess the tiebreaker wouldn't be the love stories, but the characterization. Gen from Some Men's Dreams is one of the most well-developed, compelling, and flat-out best romance heroines I've read about in years. In a genre where heroes usually overshadow heroines, the book stands out for her alone. Korbel pulled off this complex portrayal and a masterfully layered plot in a series book that was shorter, yet better, than any other single-title contemporary I read all year. That makes it my top pick."

ATBF columnist Robin Uncapher chose Dorien Kelly's Do-Over, a book she discovered after reading Leigh's review. As she wrote last month, Kelly's is the first romance she's ever read with a "completely recognizable office romance." Robin found it not only funny (the heroine says about one female co-worker that the woman could have appeared in her high school yearbook with the caption "Most Likely to Eat Her Young") but believable as well ("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."

Several on our staff found favorites in contemporary romances this year. Technical Editor Sandi Morris chose Linda Howard's Cry No More as her favorite, with Suzanne Brockmann's Gone Too Far running a close second. She also enjoyed:
  • Charming the Highlander by Janet Chapman
  • Off Limits by Michele Albert
  • Dance With the Devil by Sherrilyn Kenyon

Though AAR Review Teresa didn't feel that any book stood out quite as much as her favorites in years past, she gave her favorite nod to Gone Too Far. Mirroring Sandi, she chose Cry No More as a runner up, along with Mary Balogh's Slightly Married. As you'll note as the column continues, Linda Howard's Cry No More was an "also-ran" for several on AAR's staff.

Reviewer/Pollster Shelley Dodge was somewhat surprised to find herself selecting Nora Roberts' Birthright as her top pick. She had this to say about her choice: "Although I love Roberts, I was not sure about this one going in. I ended up getting totally caught up in spite of my bias. Part of it was that I really liked the main characters. Callie was strong but had flaws that made her very believable."

Shelley added the caveat that she was "fishing in a very limited pool." It was a tough year for her (with much less reading than usual), and she wasn't as able to read as many 2003 books as she would have liked.

Reviewer Donna Newman's choice, Laura Leone's Fallen from Grace, is also a contemporary romance, but in some ways it was decidedly unconventional. Donna calls it a "beautiful, tender, sexy love story featuring two ordinary people, one of whom just happens to be a male prostitute." She also enjoyed Night Swimming by Laura Moore, which she found to be a "nice variation on Ugly Duckling theme, sexy, funny and compellingly romantic" and Slow Hands by Lynne Kaufman ("savory mind food and a standout in women's fiction, as it explores how mature women experience love, passion and sexuality.")

The final straight contemporary romance chosen was Susan Donovan's Take a Chance on Me. Reviewer Nicole Miale picked it over Deirdre Martin's Body Check and Claudia Dain's A Kiss to Die For, mostly because she found herself recommending it to friends, which this year was a prime rationale for many reviewer's top picks.

AAR reviewer Jane, Reviews Editor Jennifer Keirans, and I all chose historical romances as our favorites. Jennifer had a lot of lackluster reads, but really enjoyed Holly Cook's The Sea Wife, her sole DIK of the year. Jane also raved about a non-genre read, Smoke Screen by Kyle Mills, which she called "funny and thought-provoking" because it made her look at the whole smoking/anti-smoking issue in a new way. In terms of romantic reads, her favorite was Pam Rosenthal's Almost a Gentleman even though she, like Jen Schendel, found herself recommending Last of the Honky Tonk Angels to friend and co-workers.

Three romances stood out for me this year: Suzanne Brockmann's Gone Too Far, Diane Farr's Under the Wishing Star, and Julia Justiss' Wicked Wager. I really enjoyed the Brockmann book when I read it, but as time passed I realized that I had little niggles that kept the book from really being my most memorable. The Farr book was one I read very recently, and one I stayed up very late to finish. I can be a sucker for poor or mistreated relations, in no small part because they always get the upper hand at some point and stick it to their awful relatives. The heroine here is a lovely example of this.

But in the end I chose Wicked Wager. I relish a good conflict, and I practically ate this one up with a spoon. The hero is a returned soldier who has made mistakes in his past, including running up gaming debts and attempting to compromise the heroine. The heroine is a widow who actually had a happy marriage the first time around. She must deal with scheming relatives and adjust to ton life, and she finds help in the most unlikely of heroes. When I look back on my reading year, it's the romance I remember most fondly.

Books by Kinley MacGregor/Sherrilyn Kenyon received the top nod from two different reviewers.

AAR Reviewer TaKiesha Smith chose fantasy romance Dance with the Devil, written under the Kenyon name. She said, "After reading it I went through her whole backlist and crashed my book budget for the month but it was definitely worth it." Her runners-up were:

  • Worth Any Price by Lisa Kleypas
  • Cry No More by Linda Howard
  • Complete Abandon by Cheryl Holt
  • Born in Sin by Kinley MacGregor

2003 was an excellent reading year for Liz, who added that it was particularly good for paranormals: "I'm not sure I've had such a great run of them. Almost every paranormal I read I loved, which never happens. With that said though, my favorite is actually a medieval, probably the only medieval of the year I really loved - Born in Sin. Tortured heroes get me every time." Other books near the top of Liz's list include:

  • Fallen from Grace by Laura Leone
  • Cry No More by Linda Howard
  • Dance with the Devil by Sherrilyn Kenyon
  • Worth any Price by Lisa Kleypas
  • Heart Thief by Robin Owens
Only two books got more than one vote this year. Lisa Kleypas's Worth Any Price was a favorite for reviewers Lori-Anne Cohen and Marguerite Kraft. Lori-Anne found herself recommending it to friends, and it sent her on a Kleypas glom. Marguerite had a similar experience:

"I loved Kleypas in college - I bought her very first book, which is pretty darn obscure nowadays - but I quit reading her somewhere along the line. WAP is the book that caused me to rediscover Kleypas and glom her entire backlist. It's also the reason I drove out last week on icy roads to get Again the Magic - and as a born and bred Southerner, I usually won't drive in icy conditions for anything less than a matter of life and death!"

Marguerite's runners-up include:

  • Sweet Release by Pamela Clare
  • See Jane Score by Rachel Gibson
  • Take a Chance on Me by Susan Donovan

Our winner, Nonnie St. George's The Ideal Bride, was chosen by three of our staff: reviewer Lynn Spencer, editor Ellen Micheletti, and none other than LLB, for whom it was the only romance DIK of the year.

Of the book, Lynn said, "This was a wonderful book. The humor was witty and entertaining without being silly/stupid. In addition to being my favorite 2003 book, it was also one of the best traditional Regencies I've read." Her runners-up include:

  • The Heartbreaker by Rexanne Becnel (I loved the fact that the characters in this book turned out to be much more than they appeared on the surface. It was a very touching story.)
  • The Surgeon by Kate Bridges (I loved the characters and the story flowed so well that I read it in one sitting.)
  • The Pirate Next Door by Jennifer Ashley (Hilarious! I loved the humor in this one, but the tenderness underlying it was what really got me.)

Ellen had her top pick all selected - until The Ideal Bride came along late in the year and blew everything else out of the water. She said, "I had my best all picked out. Susan Donovan's Take A Chance on Me was going to be it, yep this year it was going to be easy. Then Nonnie St. George came along with The Ideal Bride and knocked everything out of contention." She continued, "I love good comedy and comedy gets little respect (especially from the Oscars). The Ideal Bride is the best kind of comedy, it's witty, the characters are delightful, not ditzy and it's perfectly controlled. There is no straining for effect, no forced humor and no over the top antics. Everything and I mean everything in this book worked perfectly, and I knew from the first page that it was something very special."

While choosing The Ideal Bride hands-down, LLB wanted to mention her also-rans, particularly since three of the four were not reviewed at AAR and two were not romances at all:

  • Club Dead by Charlaine Harris
  • Second Summer of the Sisterhood by Ann Brasheres
  • Girls of Summer by Barbara Bretton
  • The Heartbreaker by Rexanne Becnel

And while this next listing of books didn't rate as high as those above, since only two were reviewed, she'd also like to mention:

 

So what's the final word? In some ways, as a group we seem to move further and further away from consensus. The first two years that I wrote this column, we had a lot more reviewers pick the same books. This year, I counted myself lucky to have a book that could be called a winner. However, it's worth noting that many staffers' top picks appear as runners-up elsewhere. Several people enjoyed Cry No More, even though only one person officially chose it. The same goes for Susan Donovan's Take a Chance on Me, and while Rachel Gibson's See Jane Score didn't get anyone's top nod, several people really enjoyed it. And what of the "none of the above" votes? Is this a trend reflected in our wider readership? Was 2003 simply an off year? We'll be anxious to see what our readers say about it.

Although our annual reader poll closed just last night, I understand that, possibly for the first time our choices aren't fully reflective of our readers' choices. It isn't that the books our readers best loved weren't enjoyed by many on our staff, but that when push came to shove, other books were enjoyed even more so. Look for the results in our annual reader poll next time, and in the interim, we hope the titles we've presented will help you find a gem or two that you might have missed along the way.

Janet Sanders Wins Our 7th Annual
Isn't It Romantic? Contest

In the late 70’s my husband and I were high-school sweethearts. That was a step up from our prior status as junior-high sweethearts. We were entwined in a small-town courtship that began with him sitting in front of me in Spanish class and progressed to “going steady”. Going steady meant handholding, passing notes between classes, and also, (thank you, God) the rapture of my long-awaited first kiss.

The "official" beginning of our relationship was October 26th, 1976, and it surprises me to this day that I can remember the date. I was a twirler with the marching band. He was a football player and a wrestler on the school teams. As was common at the time, he had a friend negotiate the “going steady” question with me to save him from public humiliation in case I said no. Our dates consisted of pizza after the high school football games, hayrides, movies, and countless hours in front of the television in my family’s basement, enduring the dutiful chaperonage of my little sister.

As the new decade began, we became college sweethearts. He pledged a fraternity so I pledged its sister sorority. Having no firm career ambition, I was anxious to get on with my romantic idea of "real life: (meaning the June Cleaver image of blissful marriage, motherhood, etc.). After all, I’d been fantasizing about wearing an elegant, elaborate wedding gown since I was about six. The obvious next step in our progression was marriage, and I hinted shamelessly. Despite his reservations, he indulged me by giving me an engagement ring the Christmas of our sophomore year. Although both sets of parents thought we should wait until we’d finished college, they were indulgent as well.

Six months later we were married in a large traditional ceremony, complete with elegant, elaborate gown and hundreds of guests. At 21, I thought my dreams had all come true…I was a bride. At 22 we were new parents. At 23 we were parents again. The bills mounted up. The babies cried. The nearly impossible act of juggling college classes, part-time jobs, and a growing family wore heavily on my young husband. To our great relief, he finally finished his degree but by then the job market for his field had dried up. So he took a job that required 60+ hours of his time a week, mostly at night and we moved to a city two hours away from our family support structure. The strain of being at home 24/7 with little relief from an endless rotation of diapers, bottles, and a duet of crying babies who had to be kept quiet while my husband slept through our waking hours wore heavily on me. The dream had badly tarnished. Our relationship deteriorated to dust. We lived in separate worlds, two strangers sharing a house. By the end of the decade we separated and divorced.

Being still young and incredibly resilient, I quickly shut off the tears, picked myself up, dusted myself off, and set my course toward surviving as a single parent of two small daughters. I moved back to our college town, went back to school, finished my degree, and started a career. Every other weekend we would each drive an hour to meet halfway between our homes so that he could have the children for his weekend visitation. His "kid’s weekends." We’d speak only about necessary things, about child-related things. There was no animosity between us. There was just a cool awkward void where a marriage used to be. While left alone, I began a fledgling social life, learning for the first time in my life what it was like to actually date someone you hadn’t known since you were 12.

I soon developed a superficial relationship with a man who carried a lot of baggage. My ex-husband had developed a girlfriend who was younger and prettier than me. I silently wished him happiness and I didn’t wish it maliciously. After a couple of years I married again to an older man who I believed to be the antithesis of my "ex." However, that marriage was even less of a success. Our blended family mixed like oil and water. It floundered early on and ended after a few years. I took back the surname I had had before this marriage. The name that matched my daughters. The name that belonged to my first husband. Still somewhat resilient and full of hard-earned self-reliance, I forged ahead. My daughters and I would be just fine alone. I would make it so. I learned to do the "man’s work" around the house and believed firmly that I had no need for a man in my life.

Until one day at the dentist’s office.

While waiting for my dental check-up, a pleasant older woman I’d never met started a conversation with me as if we’d known each other for years. She told me that she wished her son and his ex-wife would get back together. She talked about their young child. She said she thought the couple was truly meant to be together…or maybe, she said, she was just wishing they were meant to be together because she worried about her grandson. She looked at my daughters playing quietly nearby then asked if I was married. I said no and smiled almost apologetically. She asked if I’d ever thought about reconciling with the children’s father. Again I said no, and smiled to myself, this time with rueful humor. As if I would even consider such a thing! My mind chortled at the very thought. Maybe, she said quite thoughtfully, I should consider it. They called her name and before she wished me goodbye she asked which dentist I was seeing. I gave her the name of the younger dentist in the office and she smiled and said I was in good hands. Then she beamed with pride, for my dentist was her son.

I left the office that day still grinning over her strange conversation and her outlandish suggestion. After all, I was well beyond once bitten and twice shy. She had no idea what a ridiculous notion she had suggested!

Did she?

Over the next few months I began a mental cross-examination the demise of my second marriage. I decided that, contrary to romantic belief, there was not a perfect man out there just waiting for me. Therefore, I was going to waste no more time looking for someone for whom I was “meant to be”. But that strange conversation kept returning to me. It came back in odd ways. I would think of how I couldn’t stand for my second husband to stroke my hair, an odd aversion I couldn’t explain even to myself. Then, quite illogically, her words would pop into my head. I would think of how my head never fit quite right against his chest or how his kiss didn’t taste quite “right” and there she would be again in my mind. Her and her ridiculous suggestion. I chuckled again. I scoffed.

Until finally I began to wonder.

When making "kid exchanges," I began to look at their father in a different way. A curious way. What would it be like to be a family again? Did he ever think about me? Did he ever wonder if we should try again? Did he have a woman in his life? He’d always been handsome and I couldn’t imagine that there had been any shortage of women. By this time, I knew the young, pretty girlfriend was long, long gone. By this time ten years had passed since our divorce. A lifetime of years.

I was scheduled to drop off the children at his home on my way to a work-related seminar in his city and I’d also arranged to visit with an old friend who lived nearby. When the girls suddenly became sick, I left them at home at the last minute with my mother and traveled alone to my seminar. When I got near his city, I called and broke the news that they were not able to come for the weekend. He sounded so disappointed that I instantly felt sorry for him. Then there was that ridiculous suggestion again, suddenly whanging in my head. To quiet both it and my guilt over leaving him childless for the weekend, I boldly asked him to lunch, sandwiching him between the seminar and the visit to my childhood friend. Without kids present to drive the conversation, our lunch began in awkward silence. Slowly, shyly, we started to talk and after having been apart for ten years, I finally started to realize how badly I’d missed him. After lunch, when I was about to drive away and he was walking toward his door, I impulsively rolled down the window and called him back. "Do you ever think about what it might be like to be a family again?" I asked hesitantly. He knelt by the car, gently touched my arm, then looked into my eyes and said, "Every day of my life."

I cried all the way to my friend’s house.

We met again for dinner. Dinner progressed to drinks and to other things. Other familiar things. Him stroking my hair. My head fitting perfectly against his chest. The taste of a perfect kiss. I knew then why all these things had felt so wrong with another man. They were his. No matter how independent my mind had become my body was still his.

Our "kids’ weekends" changed. Instead of exchanging the kids, we shared the kids. And we shared ourselves. In 1999, nearly sixteen years after our first wedding, we remarried. No elegant, elaborate gown, no guests. Just us, together again.

Before we remarried, I happened to pick up his key ring one day and noticed an oddly small gold object threaded onto the ring with his keys. Although it was scratched and considerably dulled over time, I still recognized it. It was his wedding ring. I held up the key ring with a question to him and a quivering heart. Yes, he answered, it had been in his pocket every day for ten years. Now he wears two. One for a marriage that gave us our children. One for a marriage that gave us ourselves.

And some day I’m going to tell my dentist to thank his mother for me.

LLB: Congratulations, Janet, you're this year's winner in our Isn't it Romantic? Contest! You've won a terrific prize donated by Timeless Message which will allow you 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.

Time to Post to the Message Board

Now that we've closed the poll in our annual reader poll, we know you all want to talk about your favorite romances, 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 2003.

We also realize that there's bound to be disagreement about some of our reviewers' choices given that there's so much disagreement even among ourselves as to which romances were the best in 2003. If any of the titles presented in this column were of books you didn't care for, here's where you can talk about that. In fact, an idea kicking around for next year is that our new category (if there is to be one) might be along the lines of: Over which book did you most disagree with AAR?

The March 1st issue of At the Back Fence will present the winners/losers in this year's annual readers 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
With tremendous thanks to the rest of AAR's staff

 

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