April 1, 2004 - Issue #178

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

We explore a variety of issues in this edition of At the Back Fence. First up is a segment entitled "Hell Hath No Fury," a segment prepared mostly by reader Angie Debenham and based on a substantial message board thread from February. Next up is a Q&A with author Kate Bridges, followed by a discussion on just what's sexy in a hero. Wrapping up the column is "It's Got to be Just the 'Right' One," a brief exploration about how, at times, we may focus on quite narrow themes when it comes to reading.

Hell Hath No Fury... (Angie Debenham & Laurie Likes Books)

During my first year at The Romance Reader my two favorite books were Scoundrel and Day Dreamer; both earned 5-heart reviews. Reader response was at best, tepid, and at worst, quite angry; indeed, about the former one reader's response was that I clearly understood nothing of the era or I wouldn't have liked that horrible book. I felt bad that some may have spent their hard-earned money on these books based on my recommendation only to feel that they'd wasted it. But did I feel angry when some of these readers dissed my choices? Not really. However, I've noticed over the years that the opposite often occurred; when I dissed a book beloved by a reader their response was often fast and furious, leading me to conclude that hell hath no fury like a reader's favorite book or author scorned.

The phenomenon of a reader's perhaps extreme reaction to criticism of a favorite book or author is something we've likely all seen over the years online. Perhaps we've been on the receiving end of this fury - or we've given it. More recently these disputes have become more intense. Those who would defend a book are sometimes derided as fangirls and those who dare criticize a beloved book feel they must don asbestos as a result of sharing that information. Indeed, one reason that, over the years, we've specifically called for readers to talk about books and authors others love that they don't is to allow those readers "in hiding" the chance to come out without fear of flames. Even so, certain books - and authors - seem to that polarize readers, and when that occurs, watch out. Because it can, and has gotten ridiculous at times, from the perspective of those who feel as though they must defend their approval of a book, and from those who feel as though they cannot criticize a book.

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It's true that some of the problem is a result of online communication and how difficult it can be to convey feelings appropriately, but that's not all of it. I feel safe in saying that in my experience there are a group of readers who find it extremely difficult to separate their personal feelings about a book from themselves, and as a result take to heart any criticism of a beloved book so that, when a favorite book is criticized they feel criticized themselves. And conversely, there are some readers whose personal dislike of a book seems to be something they feel the need to share - sometimes over and over again.

As someone who publishes reviews I am acutely aware of this, and when reviews of certain books hit my in-box I know that they will create a firestorm. Usually this occurs when a book receives a grade that's average at best or, at worst, a D or F. In some instances, though, our reviews may actually be recommendations on some level and yet, as they are not out-and-out raves and do not pronounce a book a masterpiece, they are seen as disses of the book. But this works both ways; sometimes an AAR reviewer is deemed a fangirl or lacking in all taste because she liked or loved what is clearly a sub-standard piece of work, particularly in comparison with another romance that received a lesser grade.

These are not recent trends. Both have been a constant at All About Romance and were evident at The Romance Reader, when I reviewed there. I also saw evidence of this kind of thing even earlier on discussion lists like RRA-L though the "fangirl" label is somewhat newer and has intensified over the last few years. So in mid-February when a thread began on our Potpourri Message Board entitled "Taking Criticism of a Good Book Personally," I watched it closely, finding the nearly 100 posts as intriguing as I have since first joining the online community. In light of some negative reviews I've given for books other people love, I've always wondered why I seem to differ from other readers in that I don't get angry, and I don't feel a personal investment in a book in a way that some do. Is this what allows me to be a critic?

Actually, I do have an investment, but it works in reverse, and always has. I think this reverse investment is why I'm so stingy in awarding DIK's, and it goes back to high school when I would be responsible for deciding the family's TV entertainment for the evening. I'd get anxious watching for my family's reactions to a show, so anxious, in fact, that I couldn't relax and enjoy what was on TV. And if they didn't like the show I'd chosen I felt guilty and responsible for wasting their time. This continues to this day; it's hard for me to relax when I'm in charge of deciding what restaurant to eat at, or what play, movie, or DVD to choose, but since I'm in charge of the latter two most often, I've learned to live with it.

Anyone who runs a site like AAR is familiar with the "hell hath no fury" phenomenon, and when that thread popped up in February I asked if any reader would use it to put together a column segment so that we could articulate what's going on and perhaps better understand why some readers seem so personally invested in another reader's response to a book. Reader Angie Debenham prepared the wonderful piece you see below, and though not all her views are in agreement with my own, I'm incredibly pleased to share the spotlight with her.

Angie D on Reader Criticism

Criticism in any form, for any reason, can cause feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal, embarrassment, and withdrawal. When it’s directed towards our personality, our lifestyle, our way of dressing or raising children, we can choose to accept the criticism, make a change and move on. Or we may reject the opinion, deciding the person who offered it is foolish and unwise. We may remain ignorant of our weak points and blinded to the need for improvement but that’s our choice. We choose not to make a change. But what if it’s our favorite book, and further, a book we’ve praised and recommended to others, laying out our belief in the greatness of this book for all the world (or at least our chat group) to see? A beloved book we have no control over, something we cannot fix- even if we wanted to - something we cannot change or repair. If this is the case, how do we respond? Is the response the same as if someone had just told you that yours is the most ugly child on the planet? Or do you embrace the difference of opinion and accept it as a wonder of the universe, this fact of no one person thinking and feeling exactly the same?

In a recent thread on the Potpourri Message Board, Jean McS wrote: "Every once and awhile, I will post to one of these boards or in a mailing group about a book I have found and loved, and almost invariably someone will post on how much they hated the same book. I get very hurt and angry when this happens - and want to do rotten things to that person." Jean noted that she doesn't respond similarly to criticism of a favorite TV show or movie and realizes that her identity, for some reason, is so closely tied to a book that moves her, that any criticism hurts, particularly after having gone public with strong feelings in favor of the book. She then asked, "I started to wonder if I am alone in this or do others tend to feel the same way? Do you get mad and/or hurt when you write to these boards that you love a book and someone comes back with how rotten it is?"

Responses to Jean’s query were varied but fell into three general categories:

  1. Those who took no offense to others deriding a beloved book;
  2. Those who did - but only if the tone was rude or disparaging;
  3. And the third category, composed of a similar but slightly different debate - readers who became furious over a fellow reader expressing love of a book they would rather use to build their latest campfire. (Also known as those who cannot stand Whitney, My Love.)

Readers who did not take a disagreement personally seemed to be in the minority on this topic, but among those, Donna explained that she doesn't take offense when someone offers a differing opinion "as long as it is respectful." She points out that "everyone has an opinion and to disagree is why two people never see the same accident the same way and that is okay." She concludes, "I have found that most books that critics like, I don’t usually care for - just like movie reviews."

Lesa voiced a similar opinion and takes other people's recommendations on books "with a grain of salt" and assumes others do the same with her recommendations. She believes "the greatest mistake most people make is that they believe a recommendation is a guarantee of 'like,' adding: "If the person doesn’t like the book after reading it, that is their right, just as it is my right to dislike another’s choice of book. That is what makes us all different and unique, and if someone dislikes my recommendation, I don’t feel angry, hurt, insulted, etc., if my recommendations are disliked or rejected. I am who I am and they are who they are."

KarenS notes that in the past she was terribly bothered when a much loved book was criticized because, "if I felt I loved it, then everyone else should love it too," She recalls that "one day the light bulb turned on and she realized how silly that would be and how self-centered I was [to think] that only the books I loved were the only great books worth reading." She's undergone a shift of sorts in learning that her "self-esteem is not caught up in whether everyone agrees with me" and now she's "sorta glad when no on else likes some of my favorite books as I feel that the author wrote the book just for me."

These readers, and several others who agreed with them, all seemed to be making a similar point; people will always disagree and have different opinions. Opinions are subjective. No two people will ever see things in the same light - as one reader pointed out, this is why no two people see an accident in exactly the same way. How you see something depends on many factors; your emotional state, your life history, how you feel about changing point of view in a book, or whether your husband of 20 years just left you with a mortgage and three young children so he could go and "find himself." Since each person has a different set of life circumstances, values, and beliefs, it stands to reason that each person will have different feelings about the same book. However, even these readers who did not take another's dislike of a debated book personally, stated that they wanted the criticism to be offered in a respectful manner and directed at the book, not at the person offering the oppositional opinion.

For those who agreed with Jean and had moments when they’ve taken criticism of a favored book personally, many also seemed to agree that it was not someone simply disagreeing with them, but the tone and content that disagreement held. Many readers felt that often, criticism and disagreement of the book under debate was given not by pointing out specific plot devices that failed, poor characterization, or historical inaccuracies but instead became name calling, questioning of intellect and ethics, and ridicule of anyone who would defend or adore such a book.

Lady Naava wrote: that she dislikes criticism which implies that "those who like a book are not normal, advocate some sort of negative issue within the book, are flawed because they don't agree with the critic's (usually disparaging or narrow) views, or [find] the author abnormal in some way for writing a book with 'hot button issue' content."

Kristie also agreed with Jean, and has taken comments personally, but as she stated, usually only when the comments take on a certain tone. She believes she has no problem if someone says a book didn't work for them and provides a valid reason, and has even changed her mind upon occasion when that happens with a book she'd planned to by. What she finds troublesome is what sometimes happens when she or another reader posts about a book they really loved, only to read a response from someone indicating how very much they hated the same book. She believes it "just smacks of rudeness" when, in such a situation, somebody calls a favorite book "trash" or "garbage." She recalls an incident late last year and became quite upset with a particular poster, and adds that:

"There have been a lot of books I’ve loathed, some with very good reviews here and I never posted how I hated them. I just figured to each his own. I think with me it’s because when I post about how much I have loved a particular book, it sometimes makes me vulnerable (being the shy quiet kind of person I am in real life). Then, when someone posts the opposite in a very negative way, it hurts. I lurked here quite a while before I actually got up the nerve to start posting. 99% of the time I’m glad I do, but there is still that 1% time I wished I hadn’t."

Readers who are disparaged or attacked in such a way as Kristie discussed may begin to feel unwelcome or uneasy about posting an opinion on a board or chat group in the future. GwenG has experience with this feeling, she gets "twinges of insecurity when people post their dislike [of] books I've raved about." She knows no harm is meant when there is a civil discussion of opinion, but last year felt "an out and out attack" when she first discovered AAR's Reviews Message Board and posted about Brenda Joyce's Deadly series. After reading all the books in quick succession and adoring them, she posted about them and recalls feeling as though she'd "stumbled into a minefield." She writes that she was accused of "being some kind of Brenda Joyce plant and posting under different names for nefarious reasons and had no idea what this was all about," adding, "I realize certain people honestly don’t like these books and there is nothing wrong with that obviously. But this was different - I and whoever liked the books were being attacked!! The outcome of this is that I still love the series and I’ve wanted to post my view but I have censored myself! It may sound silly but I’m actually afraid to share my opinion on this one subject!"

While LLB doesn't recall Gwen's posts in specific, she believes Gwen simply had bad timing. After a negative review of Joyce's book in that series there was a major thread on the author's message board about the review and how posters who previously had been unaware of AAR had or were going to go to AAR and refute the review. As is often the case, when readers (and members of AAR's staff) notice a negative review under fire on the message board by "outsiders" to the site, they believe they have been firebombed by fangirls, something that really has happened in the past several times. In the incident to which Gwen refers, she apparently was not in that group but due to the timing of her post was lumped into it.

Many readers jumped in to expand on the subject of the type of criticism offered, pointing out that posters and reviewers alike have been guilty of using demeaning terms or phrases implying that readers of the book as well as the author of the book have less intelligence, looser morals, and/or fewer values than they. Kerstin is particularly offended when posters or reviewers include quite subjective statements about readers. She takes statements such as "this book is for undemanding readers who love shallow romances which do not challenge them, but I prefer my romances more daring, complicated, and multi-layered" personally because they are "presumptuous and arrogant" and imply that the "poster/reviewer thinks his or her taste in books is superior to other readers."

Perhaps this type of opinion aggravates Kerstin and others with similar complaints because it perpetuates, in some ways, the stereotype of romance novels being trashy with no redeeming or educational value as well as the stereotype of the typical romance reader as a woman who dropped out of high school to raise her 5 children in a run-down trailer with assistance from welfare and food stamps. LisaofArabia expressed an opinion in a similar fashion:

"Actually, this seems to cross over into the literature vs. pop fiction argument. I get the impression that if you like the 'right' kind of 'intelligent' romance (Ivory, Kinsale, etc.) that’s okay. However, if you like the wrong kind (Diana Palmer, Cassie Edwards, and Connie Mason) then you must be the dreaded stereotypical romance reader, glomming Diana Palmer under your framed High School Diploma. On the other hand, if you have a PhD in Astrophysics, you can read Diana Palmer with impunity because you’ve already proven your intelligence."

Author Laura Kinsale voiced her agreement with Lisa: "I agree with you that it’s not fair or courteous to judge someone by the books they read. When I see my books used as a marker like that ('intelligent' vs. 'peasant' taste, etc.) I ask that they not be used to define readers in that manner. I don’t think it’s fair to readers or to me."

There is an old saying that states "ignorance is bliss" and in a similar statement, AAR Reviewer Rachel offered what was perhaps the best explanation for not wanting to hear negative remarks about a DIK book - wanting to retain the same emotion for a book without having that feeling ruined by criticism and disparaging remarks. She shared that she's very protective of her DIK reads and, whether or not she's written the review, is bothered when people criticize them. She deals with it by not reading those threads. If a reader doesn't like The Bronze Horseman or The Windflower, she figuratively puts her hands over her ears because of her emotional investment in the books. She adds, "I want to re-read the books with all the same enjoyment I got out of it the first time. I don't want to re-read [the books] and see all the problems everyone else had."

A similar question with a twist arose from Jean's original question when Serene mentioned how intensely it bothers her when someone gushes over a book she dislikes. She is "furious" when she sees loving posts on books and heroes she loathes and is particularly angered when she reads "justifications for horrendous behavior;" her blood boils hottest where Gervase of Dearly Beloved, Clayton from Whitney, My Love, and several of Catherine Coulter's heroes are concerned. She's happier to read that someone simply loves a hero, "warts and all," rather than explaining away bad behavior. Kerstin has the same problem as Serene; she is "confused and hurt" if she sees "heroes adored and worshipped that" she finds "abusers of the worst sort," and "Gervase and Clayton are good examples of that."

Using both Whitney, My Love and a more recently hotly debated book, Sarah’s Child, as examples, how many readers would find their fingers flying across the keyboard to lambaste any who can claim an enjoyment, a connection, or even a, gasp, love of these controversial books?

For many it seems, all that needs happen is the mention of Whitney, My Love and emotions begin to flare. After Serene’s mention the McNaught romance in her above post, readers on both sides of the love/hate relationship with this book and its characters began to respond. Readers such as LisaOfArabia proclaimed their positive feelings for this book while readers on the opposite side of the fence, including Serene and Joan (Too) took enjoyment in inventing torturous endings for the book’s hero, Clayton. This only served to emphasize the immediate and passionate responses that the love - and hate - of a book can evoke.

What do you feel when criticism is aimed at your beloved book? Does it feel as though it is a jab at your intelligence, your worthiness, and your soul? Do you get the urge to cyber slap that person 3000 miles and an ocean away? Do you feel the desire to hop on a plane just so you can see their face when you tell them they’re wrong and you’re right - even if you do only have that deep visceral love of the book to back up your point? Or do you simply shrug and move on, admiring that person for having the backbone to disagree and admiring the obvious attention to detail it took to recognize and then recall all 233 historical errors in your favorite Regency-set historical romance?

The question seems to remain: Is it possible to debate a beloved or hated book without moving that debate into a personal arena where feelings get hurt and name calling takes place? Or are the books we love - and hate - so much a reflection of ourselves that the intensity of these debates will always take place with a passion normally reserved for debating topics such as politics and religion? Or in debating a book, are we, in reality, defending our beliefs?

I’ve had several weeks to think out my position on the idea of taking someone’s criticism of a book personally and I'm still on the fence. I have a passion for reading, as I’m sure many others do, and there is nothing I love more than a book that tells a story in such a way as to make me feel like I am a part of it - an intimate observer. And yet, I can’t think of a single book that would induce me to participate in an argument that involves name-calling, questioning of values, intelligence, and sanity.

I deplored Thomas Harris' Hannibal and felt the ending was a sell out to the heroine’s strength and personality. I disliked it so intensely that I’ve refused to ever watch the movie - even after loving Silence of the Lambs. It was, in no doubt, the one book I would happily use if I were in desperate need of tinder for my fire (I who believe the burning of books is near sacrilege). Yet I can’t imagine asking someone else: Are you crazy, did you lose all sense of your humanness, do you have no moral fiber whatsoever for liking and enjoying what I believe is a sadistic book with an ending that should not have ever happened? On the other hand, I loved Jodi Picoult's newest novel, My Sister’s Keeper. I thought the story was well told and compelling in a way that made me root for all of the characters - not just one. But I’m not going to take up my baseball bat if someone disagrees and finds flaws in the plot. I know there were flaws. I can think of a major one myself. I don’t care - I still loved the book. And it’s okay with me if someone else has an entirely different position. It’s important to accept that others are going to hold different beliefs than I and perhaps learn from their position.

What many of us forget in the process of criticism is this; that it should be offered in a form that offers reason and constructive use. And when it’s done in such a way - it should be learned from, not ignored or abused. Yet, therein lies the problem and the content of much of my article; criticism to many holds a negative connotation and some seemed not to have learned that all important lesson - how to offer constructive criticism and engage in a spirited, yet polite debate.

That’s where I come in on the opposite side of the argument. I too, will take someone’s judgment personally when it is offered in a way that is, well, personal. There is nothing more essential to me than my beliefs, values, morals, and character. I haven’t experienced an "attack" such as has been discussed towards a particular book but rather when someone disparages a genre as a whole, implying something about me, or other readers simply because of the type of books we read.

I can think of several examples but two stand out in my mind - one was a post several months ago on the Reader to Reader Message Board about Young Adult fiction being reviewed and/or on sites as varied as RT or AAR. The poster went on to say she considered it an insult as she believed that Young Adult novels are "dumbed down." I perceived this as an attack on an entire genre, considered it short-sighted, uninformed and yes, personal. I have enjoyed several Young Adult novels and didn’t find them in any way less intelligent or compelling than many adult novels and I don’t believe that it’s any way because I am of lower intelligence.

The second example of another denigrating an entire genre is perhaps more obvious - those who deride romance publishing. A classic example came about when I was in my local bookstore several weeks ago and watched a woman smile while trying to pick out a book and at the same time ignore her husband's ridicule. He told her to "go ahead and pick out your smut but I hope our kids don’t pick up your reading habits" (he was holding the latest action thriller). His words only serve to underscore a misconception that readers and authors alike are constantly combating and attempting to dispel - romance is not smut, trash, or just about sex.

So, if someone insults a genre I love, I’m going to take that personally, because for me, books contain a very personal wealth of understanding, knowledge, and freedom. Meanwhile, I’ll be cheering on those of you defending your beloved books (in a polite and productive manner, of course) because I understand!

A Q&A with Kate Bridges (with LLB, Lynn Spencer, and Robin Uncapher)

Mention Canada and certain images and ideas come to mind; the cost of prescription medication, the Canadian health care system, Bob and Doug MacKenzie (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis) and their moronic discussions of hosers, donuts, and beer, the great French-English debate, hockey, Dudley Do-Right, the Mounties, gorgeous scenery, and lyrics from Southpark: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut asking that we blame Canada for all ills in the U.S. today. In other words, most Americans don't think all that much about our neighbors to the north. But Canada is so much more than hockey, quirky accents, and curling; it's also headquarters to Harlequin Books, which publishes all the series romances available today, as well as single title romances, romantic suspense, thrillers, and Chick Lit.

Given that Harlequin is headquartered in Canada, is it surprising that so few romances are set on Canadian soil? It seems to me a setting ripe for romance, as anyone who ever read the wonderful Mrs. Mike can tell you. And the history of Canada's settling is likely as fascinating as the history of how the U.S. was settled, perhaps even more so because of the duality of its existence, with French influence in the east and English influence in the west - and with less negative baggage.

I haven't read many romances set in Canada - but not for lack of effort - and those I've read I've thoroughly enjoyed (and there's no way I could discuss Canada and fiction without mentioning the Anne of Green Gables series). My most recent reading trek to Canada came via Kate Bridges' The Surgeon, a 2003 Harlequin Historical set in Calgary in 1889. The book is a mail-order bride romance that brings together Sarah O'Neill and Royal Canadian Mounties Chief Surgeon John Calloway.

Sarah O'Neill travels across Canada to marry Royal Canadian Mounties Chief Surgeon John Calloway; she thinks he's written her some wonderful letters as a result of his search for a mail-order bride. She's revealed herself in her letters back to him but soon discovers he hasn't a clue who she is. Seems his men wrote the letters because they thought "Black and White" needed a wife. In a new town, without money, hopes dashed, and embarrassed as the truths she revealed in her letters are whispered around town, Sarah determines to stay and build a new life regardless.

John is a decent man, a caring officer, and good doctor. When he discovers that Sarah is victim to vicious gossip, he proposes and they marry. While he's a good person, he's used to giving orders and brooking no disagreement. Sarah, however, is no whimpering miss. She's strong, intelligent and willing to disagree with John when she thinks it important. She has a quiet dignity, though, and isn't a fiery foot-stomping, hair-tossing heroine. Conflict is created for the couple as a result of her not wanting to be treated like a subordinate, and because Sarah hides a secret that, because of John's black-and-white world view, puts the couple in an untenable position. Their marriage becomes one in name only - even though this is one passionate couple - and how they make their marriage real is a wonderfully romantic story.

Robin, reviewer Lynn Spencer, and I all enjoyed the book a great deal; indeed, for Robin it was a DIK. So not long ago we conducted a Q&A with Kate Bridges that we'd like to share with you now.

Laurie: It's funny, but I think every romance I've read that's set in Canada is one I've enjoyed. I know Harlequin is based in Canada, but given the number of Canadian authors, does it surprise you that so few romances are in Canada? Is there simply the idea that unless it's England or the US nobody will buy the books?

Kate Bridges: Thank you, I’m personally delighted you enjoy romances set in Canada. I’d like to also thank you for inviting me here today and the generous comments you, the reviewers and readers have been making about The Surgeon. One day not too long ago, I was quite shocked while reading ATBF to see [it] listed as a buried treasure. I was so blown away I simply stared at the screen for five minutes!

Your very first question requires a lot of thinking on my part, because I don't want to offend other Canadian authors by speaking on their behalf about what they choose to write about, nor offend any publishers about what they should publish. So I have to say up front that I'm speaking only for myself and from my experience.

I think authors pick their settings according to what personally drives them, their interest and passion, so it doesn’t surprise me that there’s rich variety with Canadian authors. I find the same variety in American authors choosing British and overseas settings.

What settings are getting published depends on what genre you’re writing in and what the publishers are currently accepting. I think that contemporary romances set anywhere in Canada are thriving.

In historicals, specifically Westerns, things are a bit different in the publishing world. Certain publishers are resistant to Westerns at the moment, whether set in the US or Canada. Fortunately, the editors at Harlequin Historicals have always loved a variety of time periods and settings. They’re enthusiastic and open to Canadian settings. And personally, I think Westerns are swinging back the other way, as indicated by several Westerns hitting the NYT and USA Today Lists recently.

When I first conceived the idea for a Mountie series, I read numerous journals of the early Mounties. The Canadian West was settled much later than the US West. Our population has always been one-tenth of the US, so there were virtually no settlers in Alberta until 1873, when the Mounties were created by the government in the east and sent west to make peace with the Indians, drive out whiskey traders, and set up law enforcement before homesteading was introduced. So the window of writing about Alberta’s development is only 1873-1900, a much smaller window than for US Westerns. And the 1900 publishing barrier is just beginning to crumble.

It was a surprise to discover that many Americans arrived to settle our West. Up until World War I, we accepted Americans directly into our Mountie forces. So I’m looking forward to writing a few handsome Americans into my Mountie series! Many of them came directly from the UK, too. Charles Dickens’ third son, Francis, was a Mountie.

Lynn: You mentioned that the 1900 barrier for historical settings is just beginning to crumble. Is there a particular setting/event that you have in mind for future writing which would go beyond that barrier?

Kate: I’m still researching possibilities for that time period, and listening to what readers are saying about places and events they’d like to read about. So nothing concrete yet.

For the next little while, I plan on writing more about the Mounties, and moving their locale to places like British Columbia, and possibly north for the gold rush. I just signed on to do an e-harlequin eight-week serial. Wild West Kiss will start sometime around April 13 and go to June 8, and it’s free for online readers. So please drop by if you’d like to read a short story set in Calgary revolving around Quigley’s Irish Pub, started by an ex-Mountie officer.

Laurie: I think I’ve been in love w/the Mounties since reading Mrs. Mike as a girl. Is that a book you’ve read and enjoyed?

Kate: Another very timely question. For some reason, that book eluded me as a girl. I’d never heard of it until I started writing about the Mounties, then many people recommended it. I searched madly for the book and it seemed to pop up everywhere I looked, including the DIK page [at AAR - author Jennifer Greene wrote the review for it]. But then so many people recommended it that I came to a screeching halt. I worried if I read the book, it might affect my own take on Mounties, and even subconsciously might affect the way I wanted to tell my stories. So I held off.

Fortunately (not) my daughter came down with chicken pox two weeks ago. While spending nine days cooped up with her, I decided it was time to read Mrs. Mike. By this time I’d written three Mountie novels, with The Engagement coming out this May, and I knew the book would no longer affect my work.

What a beautiful book! For readers who may not know - Mrs. Mike is a gently told story of a young woman moving from Boston to northern Canada. She marries a Mountie and so vividly describes her feelings for him, their neighboring Indians and friends, the wild country, and nature that it immediately gripped me. Of course, the tragedy in their lives is sometimes overwhelming and the book’s a real tearjerker. But I’m now saving it for my daughter when she reaches adolescence.

Laurie: The mail-order bride theme is one of my favorites. Is it one of yours? Do you think they work better when there’s a twist, such as the one you wrote into yours?

Kate: I love mail-order bride themes, too. They’re unique to historicals and evoke a lot of emotions. I think they work well even without a twist, but I couldn’t resist using one I uncovered in my research. In a true-life incident, a troop of Mounties in British Columbia placed an ad in an Eastern newspaper to order their commander a mail-order bride as a joke. She arrived, and he, appalled by what his men had done, sent her home on the next train immediately. Of course, the aggravation, humiliation, disappointment, and anger the woman must felt was too much for me to pass on! In The Surgeon, the heroine refuses to go home, refuses to be whisked under the carpet like a little mound of dirt.

And also, may I add that I can’t believe the troop did that. The first thing I thought when I read about that incident was that alpha men haven’t changed much in 120 years. Boys will be boys, some would say, which doesn’t excuse them at all. But it provides a good base for humor.

Robin: There are not very many historicals about doctors. What gave you the idea to do this one?

Kate: My background! As an RN, I worked for years in pediatric intensive care (especially neonatal, with critically ill preemies.) In the novels I was reading, if there was a sick character, I often found I was curious about their condition and wanted to know more. As an author, I wanted to concentrate on showing what doctors did know a hundred years ago, rather than what they didn't.

We tend to think about historical doctors in terms of the mistakes they made, such as using rusty instruments, or being ignorant about infection. But researching deeper, I was fascinated to learn about the terror people had about rabies and how they developed a vaccine. And that the symptoms of Parkinson's disorder were first observed by the English physician, Dr. James Parkinson, in the 1790s. Although he didn’t know its cause, he formally described the condition to the world in 1817, yet we tend to assume it's a modern disease. It’s been written about since 500 BC.

I thought if I was interested in this sort of medical detail, there might be a few readers interested, too. Not all my books contain medical characters, though.

Robin: I was surprised that Sarah seemed to feel that she would have a lot of time on her hands if she was at home. What with washing by hand, cooking from scratch, etc., do you really feel that would have been the case? Why?

Kate: A lot of women certainly did have to work hard. But Sarah was marrying a commissioned officer. Many of these officers came from wealthy eastern families, and were paid extremely well by the government. They were allowed to buy their own homes in town rather than stay in forts, bring in imported furniture, and could afford all the hired help they needed. John's cleaning lady lived next door, and Sarah hired cooks to serve meals when they had guests. Having no children at the beginning of their marriage, and with John required to travel across the territory, she knew she'd have a lot of time on her hands. She liked to work, too, and accepting a job at the jewelry store would allow her to keep her ears open for word on her long-lost brother.

Your point is well taken. For the very reasons you mention, only Mountie officers, not enlisted men, were allowed to marry, and only then with permission. The commanders felt that married men wouldn’t have enough time or energy to devote to the force after they’d finished chopping wood, hunting for food, and providing for their families. They had to travel thousands of miles in a year, to cover the territory they enforced. The marriage restrictions were a bit more complicated, but that’s the heart of it - the Historical Office of the RCMP in Ottawa recently faxed me 24 pages on the Marriage Policies and Regulations from 1877-1920. LOL! My mind is racing with story possibilities.

Robin: One thing I really liked was the believable conflict between these two. Was it difficult to keep the tension up or did that come easily?

Kate: Thank you. And oh, boy, was it difficult. This was the first book I'd written with a mail-order bride, so I found it particularly hard to keep the tension tight after the early love scenes. Once they made love, I figured, what could possibly keep them apart, and how do I maintain sexual tension? So before I began, I outlined the story and conflict very thoroughly to ensure it would hold.

I really enjoy writing dialogue, and often find once the hero and heroine have something to talk about in their external world, the conflict flows easily. Like the rest of you, I love old movies where the snappy lines come one right after the other - Cary Grant and Doris Day, Hepburn and Tracy, the movies When Harry Met Sally and one of my favorites, Shirley Valentine. Seinfeld, too, is a great show to learn about writing dialogue.

Lynn: I really liked Sarah as a heroine. She was smart, independent and stronger than a lot of heroines I've seen in a while. I was just curious to know if you had based her on yourself or on someone you know.

Kate: Thanks again, I’m glad you saw her this way. I can’t say I modeled her after me, although I wish I were as strong! I enjoy reading about smart, independent women, and the late 1800s in particular draw me because it was a time when women were going to university and becoming professionals, so their occupations were varied.

Most of my characters come to me after reading about true-life incidents during research. Sarah’s character came from a library discard book I’d bought called Gunsmithing Simplified by Harold E. MacFarland. It was published in 1950, and by the author’s photo on the cover, he looks eighty or ninety years old. That, to my sheer delight, made him an actual gunsmith during 1889, the setting for The Surgeon.

His book is filled with funny anecdotes, where he describes how normal folks couldn’t afford expensive Colts, or Smith and Wessons, and how the town clockmaker usually doubled as a gunsmith to produce cheap guns. I thought it would be interesting to have two fictional characters grow up in this environment, each learning the opposite trade from their father. Sarah learned clockmaking, while her brother learned gunsmithing. But from my own observation of my inquisitive daughter, I realized that Sarah likely would have picked up the trade of gunsmithing as well, just from being immersed in that environment. Hence, she’s a gunsmith, too.

There’s a young family man in the story who has Parkinson’s. Michael J. Fox, and his heroic battle with Parkinson’s, was the inspiration for creating that fictional character.

And the hero, John Calloway, was sparked by the true-life Mountie commander (he wasn’t a surgeon, though) whose troops played a prank on him by ordering him a mail-order bride.

One thing I do have in common with my characters is their love of the West. Twenty years ago before my husband and I were married, we decided to move from the Toronto area to Alberta to work and study. We stayed five years before returning due to family obligations, but the freedom we felt with no family ties, the wonderful opportunities and dreams of starting from scratch, the magnificent scenery, all stay with me. Every time one of my characters steps off the train and arrives in the West, that’s me in their shoes.

Lynn: I can tell that Canada (especially western Canada) is a setting you love. Is there something about this place that you especially want to convey to your readers?

Kate: Only that the Rocky Mountains contain some of the most beautiful and romantic landscapes I’ve ever experienced. Come visit!

It’s one of my personal goals to also see as much of the American Rockies as I can. So far, I’ve been to Montana and Colorado, and each has its own distinctive beauty and charm. I’m going to Texas this summer - no Rockies there - and can’t wait.

Laurie: Let’s talk about the hero, John - Black and White John - so known because his moral code didn't allow him to see the shades of gray that sometimes muddies real life. And also the idea of his being a man. For some reason in recent months I've been totally caught up in the idea that the dangerous bad boy isn't the only form of sexy, that its sometimes opposite - a man who makes a woman feel safe by virtue of his total competence (and awareness of that competence) as a man - is equally sexy.

Kate: Okay, let’s talk about sexy men and what makes them sexy. I think intelligent men are extremely sexy. Mature men. Men who can, even for one moment, understand the woman’s point of view. That’s the killer for me. A man who can understand a woman’s point of view, whether it’s taking over a small task in the home because he can see she’s exhausted, or offering a shoulder to cry on because he sees she needs it. And I think that’s what separates the men from the boys. Someone who is aware of himself and his environment, including the people around him, and is confident and in complete control of it. Or so he thinks.

Right from the opening scene, John Calloway is indignant by the prank his men have played and thinks it might be funny for them, but what about the woman? He tears a strip off them for downplaying her life, her goals, and her hopes. Even though John himself is stubborn as sin, commanding as hell, with a nickname of Black-and-White to boot because things are never gray in his mind, the fact that he can put himself in Sarah’s shoes and think of her humiliation makes him a hero in my mind. It’s what gives hope to the reader that he can transform and is worthy of her love.

Taking command, he immediately tells Sarah the truth, provides food and shelter for her, then goes back to blast his men for the prank. He always takes things a bit too far, though. As a surgeon, he realizes that Sarah’s vomiting and motion sickness on the train are due in part to her restrictive clothing. So being a man in charge, he cuts off her corset while she’s sleeping. Of course, the fact that he shredded it angers the hell out of her in the morning, but in his mind he did the right thing. Intelligence also goes hand in hand with a good sense of humor, which I also find extremely sexy in a man.

Every year Harlequin Enterprises does a fun survey around the world about love and relationships and puts it in a Valentine’s Day Report. This year’s report deals with seduction. They interviewed 6,638 men and women in 20 different countries, and asked, "What is the most effective physical charm used to seduce?". The number one answer around the world, especially in the US and Canada? The way someone carries themselves.

That’s it precisely! It’s also almost indefinable. It’s their charisma, their charm, their confidence, their awareness of themselves and their surroundings. And so, I’ve got to ask. What do you think is sexy in a man?

Laurie: Kate, I'm going to get into that in just a moment, but for now, here's my short list of what makes a man sexy: a wicked sense of humor, eyes you can drown in, quiet competence, kindness, intelligence, and passion.

What's Sexy? (by LLB)

It's funny that Kate Bridges happened to ask me what I find sexy in a man when she did, because my ideas about what's sexy are changing. It took reading her book and Lorraine Heath's newest - Smooth Talkin' Stranger - to discover that confidence and competence are very potent aphrodisiacs for me; I believe that as I get older it's the more subtle and complex parts of a man that appeal to me more than the obvious. And though I consider myself a feminist, confidence and competence are enticing because they make me feel safe. The bad boy has his place, to be sure, but his opposite does as well.

What's sexy in a man? Let's get down to cases and talk about the physical as well as the mental and emotional components. For instance, my husband is tall, dark, and handsome - he's truly my dream man - and he also fits to a T those attributes I mentioned when Kate Bridges asked what I find sexy in a man (yes, I'm a very lucky woman). And yet for some reason I also find the skinny, no-hair-on-his-chest lead singer from Maroon 5 to be sexy too, for his voice, his songs, the way he moves his body in videos and concert, and, yes, the anger and cynicism reflected in his lyrics about being dumped by his muse. (BTW, those looking for a great CD should consider Songs About Jane, and if you're listening at all to the radio these days you'll no doubt have already heard This Love, my favorite song of the moment.)

The idea of what's sexy in a physical sense really came into play last week when I read - finally - Lord of Scoundrels. The hero is described as a child but never truly as a man, and indeed, the only sense of his physicality, other than that he's large and has a large nose, is that he believes himself to be a hulking brute of a man while the heroine thinks he's got it going on. After reading the book I wondered: Is he an ugly man or did he "grow into" his looks?

Something I really enjoyed when reading the book was the hero's inner incomprehension, expressed in self-talk, that the heroine found him not only lust-worthy, but gorgeous. I can't say I found that sexy in him per se, but it made the book more sexy, and so much fun to read. On the other hand, something I did find incredibly sexy in a hero occurred during the love scene in MaryJanice Davidson's hilarious Chick Lit/Vampire/Romance, Undead and Unwed, when the heroine read the hero's mind to discover his overwhelming lust - and care - for her.

In going over the remainder of the 34 books I've read so far this year, I've been able to list what I found sexy in various (but not all) heroes - regardless of the grade I assigned the books. One thing's for sure; I hold a lot of contrary ideas in my mind about what's sexy, something I attribute to an author's skill:

  • An Affair Most Wicked featured an historical rake of the first degree who would never have bothered about anyone's reputation, but worried about the heroine's so much so that he re-entered society and courted her properly, knowing full well that would eventually result in marriage. That Seger, Marquess of Rowden was a terrific lover didn't hurt.

  • Bitten's Clayton Danvers was, in more ways than one, like a dog with a bone. The heroine was his, and he would do anything for protect her and earn her love.

  • Lord Prescott Avery from A Family for Gillian (my only DIK thus far in 2004) and An Improper Proposal's George Pembroke, Lord Sedgewick both loved their first wives to distraction, so much so that they never thought they could love again, and then they did.

  • Reginald Montague's chivalry in helping the heroine even though he thought she was scheming to entrap his friend in The Genuine Article and did his best to thwart the marriage, all the while falling in love with her himself.

  • Anthony Earhart's ducal mien in The Temporary Wife and how it was expressed in a scene between he and the heroine at the end of the book wherein he convinces her, in an intense speech, that she's his duchess - forever and always.

  • How Miles Ripley, Earl of Severn from The Ideal Wife good-naturedly fell in love with the "managing" wife he'd tried to avoid, and his efforts to try and help her open up to him, all without anger, only with concern.

  • The Duke of Cynssyr's continual efforts to convince the heroine that he loved her (and shown in various and sundry ways!) in Lord Ruin, after living a life of a rake.

  • How much it bothered (and eventually angered) Alistair Munro, the Duke of Bridgewater in The Plumed Bonnet that the heroine refused to be her true self with him because of his station in life (and his own earlier behavior), and how he sought to change that, mostly by making changes in himself.

  • The Earl of Huntington's work ethic in To Marry an Heiress, how hard he fought against love the second time around, and how hard he eventually fell in love with his second wife.

  • How much Zachary Bronson of Where Dreams Begin schemed in order to win over the heroine, even if at first it was only to win her into his bed, and how devastated he was when he thought he'd lost her forever.

You can see from my list that a variety of attributes caught my fancy; pure sexual lust, hard work, strong fidelity, even the ability to speak convincingly from the heart with purpose and meaning. What goes without saying, of course, is that each of these heroes showed how dearly they loved their heroines by the ends of the books, and that in itself is sexy.

As readers, as human beings, we all have our own ideas of what constitutes a sexy man. Robin Uncapher puts at the top of her list of this year's reads the following heroes:

  • John McKenna, the hero of Lisa Kleypas' Again the Magic is smart and resourceful but what makes him so sexy is his deep love for the heroine. The book contains a heartbreaking proposal where the hero declares that even if the heroine does not love him, he loves her enough for both of them. Wow.

  • Harry, Earl of Cambourne, the hero of Jessica Benson's The Accidental Duchess reminded me of Cary Grant. He manages to be both witty and sexy. Why is he so sexy? The author of this first person told story manages to drop enough hints so that we see far more than she does about him. The main thing we see is that he has loved her all his life.

  • Ash Farrell, the hero of Marsha Moyers' The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch, just never gives up. Though the heroine rejects him again and again Ash is persistent, kind and just plain wonderful.

As for my other ATBF co-columnist, even though Anne Marble used to read 1980s bodice-rippers, she doesn't remember thinking the heroes were particularly sexy. She read The Wolf and the Dove, for instance, and enjoyed it, but didn't glom onto Wulfgar in the way one of her friends did, who "extolled the way Woodiwiss described every bit of him, from his head to his belly button, and from his belly button to his toes, and yes, everything in-between." On the other hand, she melts for heroes like Eddie Berlin in Theresa Weir's Cool Shade, whom she describes as having "the eyes of a poet." The same goes for a Garwood hero, who loves his heroine "even if she's a little wacky." Does she go for the kinder, gentler hero? "Perhaps. He doesn't have to be a 'softy,' he doesn't even have to be 'good,' he just shouldn't he so hard-headed that he could crack nuts with his noggin."

It's Got to be Just the "Right" One (by LLB)

I don't think I'm alone in going through phases in my reading when I want to glom-read certain types of books, no matter how narrow the focus, or precisely for a narrow focus. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I was looking for another Balogh trad, and I brought a stack of books into the bedroom so that my husband could help me pick one. After being forced to read the backs of about ten books, he chose one, and I settled in for a read, only to stop on page 42 and put the book away.

One of my cravings these days is for governess romances or romances featuring heroes who remarry women who will care for their children, never planning on intimacy between themselves and their new wives. Unfortunately, The Ungrateful Governess did not feature a governess working for the hero, so I set it aside. I could find no book in the stack to satisfy that particular craving, and moved on to another craving. Because I'd so enjoyed The Temporary Wife and The Ideal Wife, Balogh trads in which the hero marries an unsuitable heroine to prevent interfering parents from forcing a particular woman on him, I hoped to find another, similar title amongst my stash of Balogh trads. When I could not, I "settled" for The Plumed Bonnet, featuring a couple forced to marry after the heroine is thought to have been compromised by the hero. All three Balogh titles featured couples unmatched socially, which fulfilled my craving, and all three titles, btw, are ones I recommend.

My narrowly focusing on types within types, though, began earlier this year when I read Jill Marie Landis' Summer Moon. I read it right after reading The Surgeon, precisely because it too featured a mail-order bride. And as both titles were mail-order bride with a twist romances, I wanted to find others to read. Landis' book also featured a previously married hero, but it wasn't until I read A Family for Gillian, with the mail-order bride's close cousin, the arranged marriage, that I realized I wanted to read more romances featuring heroes who had loved their first wives to distraction. Close to 20% of the books I've read so far this year featured either mail-order brides (with a twist) or heroes desolate after the death of their first wives. That percentage would be even greater if I knew where to look; at the moment I can't seem to get enough of these types of romances.

Anne believes the success of our Special Title Listings is proof that many readers want a narrow focus at one time or another in their reading. She writes, "Sometimes just any old book won't do. Sometimes it just has to be a governess romance (and yes, I prefer the ones where the heroine is working for the hero), and sometimes, you want a road romance." Her apartment is "littered with the remnants of 'book phases'" from her past, adding: "Over here, I have a box with older bodice rippers. In that corner, the remaining Gothic romances in my collection. (Governess and companion heroines preferred, heroines in whirlwind courtship accepted, Gothic heroines who inherit property step to the back of the line.)" She only complains when she has to move the boxes, noting, "Whatever strikes my fancy, chances are that I might have just the right book. I have romantic suspense, Regency, humor, contemporary, historical, old, new, something borrowed (darn, who did that belong to?), something new."

Are you familiar with this or does what Anne and I have experience sound foreign to you? Have you gone through periods where you specifically seek out romances with quite narrow themes? I've definitely gone through author glom periods, or periods when all I want to read are trads or medievals, or even governess romances, but this may be the first time I've wanted to read only governess romances in which the governess works for the hero so in love with his first wife that the idea of loving another woman is loathsome.

I asked Robin whether she's experienced the need to read so narrowly. Her response was that book phases are "relatively rare, but lethal, and when I'm in the clutches of a true book phase it can get expensive." She too went through a governess phase, but has also gone through phases when she wanted to read love triangles, "the more heartbreaking the better," and phases where she wanted to read books with letters in them. Each phase was set off by a particularly good example of that type of book, for instance, "My Sweet Folly had me looking, rather fruitlessly, for heroes who were a bit crazy. Georgette Heyer's A Civil Contract had me looking for arranged marriages, but only those caused by the hero's needing to marry an heiress he did not love. If he loved her first the book was a non-starter. He had to fall in love after the marriage."

Robin concludes: "What does all this mean? I'm not sure except that all of us love to hear beloved stories repeated when we are children. Somehow the things we like about a favorite story never fail to give us a certain 'kick.' Perhaps loving certain aspects of a story and searching for it in new books is the adult version of this. It certainly feels like it."

Time to Post to the Message Board

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

Has another person's dislike of a book you adore made you angry? What precisely was it about their comments that bothered you? Conversely, when you read raves about a book you didn't care for, are you bothered by that? Which feels more frustrating or upsetting?

Have you ever been accused of being a fangirl for a particular author? Have you ever labeled another reader a fangirl?

Have you ever noticed that even mild criticism of a certain author cannot be brooked? Conversely, is there an author you love that seems to be constantly derided? Have you ever kept your mouth shut when you wanted to make either a negative or positive comment about a book or author because you felt you'd be taken to task for doing so?

LLB and Angie provide different reasons for why they think readers are taken to task. LLB thinks readers can become so personally invested in a book or author that they cannot separate themselves out of it while Angie believes it's more in how things are stated that cause the problem. Do you agree with either, or some combination of both?

It's been said many times that readers are tired of the same settings in their romances - whether historical or contemporary. Where (and when) would you like to see more romances set?

What about Canada? How much do you think you know about Canada, and and are you surprised it's so little? Does Canada present an interesting setting given the duality of cultures, the settlement of the country, and the lack of some of the baggage that might turn readers off American historicals?

Do you enjoy mail-order bride romances? What about those with a twist? What are some of your favorites and which ones didn't work, and why?

Moral ambiguity plays a big part in many romances, and quite often it is the actions of the hero that are morally questionable. In Kate Bridges' book the hero could not tolerate shades of gray. Discuss.

LLB talks about quiet competence and how a man who is simply sure of himself and able to take care of himself and those around him is sexy to her. If the bad boy has a place in your heart, does his opposite?

What's sexy in a hero, and why? Which heroes are at the top of your list, either of all time or so far this year, and why, of the sexiest heroes? Are any of your choices either surprising or contradictory, and have they changed over the years?

Have you ever wanted or felt the need to glom a certain type of romance, one with a fairly narrow focus? Provide some details of any matching experiences; when did this occur, what was the focus, what book(s) kicked it off, etc.

Consider whether Robin's point about glom reading relating to our childhoood days when we craved hearing the same story over and over. Do you think she might be on to something? I you disagree with her theory, what's your explanation?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books, Angie Debenham, Kate Bridges,
Lynn Spencer, Robin Uncapher, & Anne Marble

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