Treat yourself to the AAR bookbag!

July 1, 2004 - Issue #183

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

We're half-way through the reading year and now seems a good time for us to take a look at what we've read this year. Robin and I both do that, but from different angles. She considers some of the bigger releases of the year while I'll discuss my reading in general. Between the two segments I think we hit upon both widely read books and some experiences you all may relate/have related to at some point in your reading.


New Favorites by Old Favorites (Robin Uncapher)

Not long ago, at the behest of two begging children, I subscribed to a streaming music service called Rhapsody. Though my kids love the service, my ten-year-old daughter listening to Motown and my son listening to hip-hop, I have also become addicted. One of my favorite games is listening to version after version of a standard, recorded by a large number of artists. You search for a standard like You’ve Got a Friend, and get a long list of singers, musicians and groups that have recorded it. It is interesting to see the different spin groups put on the song. You can listen to Ezio Pinza sing Some Enchanted Evening and then hear it sung by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Willie Nelson, The Temptations (yes those Temptations) and, believe it or not, Jay and the Americans. Listening to all those versions of Some Enchanted Evening can give you a different take on the song but it can also reveal the strengths and weaknesses of those who sing it or try to sing it. It can also reveal surprises. While its not that surprising that Bing Crosby created my favorite version of Some Enchanted Evening, Jay and the Americans was not all that bad, a good deal better, in fact, than Bernadette Peters.

It occurred to me last night, as I was listening to Edith Piaff, Placido Domingo and Louis Armstrong sing La Vie En Rose, that when I read a Regency historical romance or even a Chick Lit book I am looking for similarities and variations in the genre. One advantage of reading auto-buy authors is seeing the variations they make to old themes. A new book by a favorite author may seem unaccountably better and yet in the same style as the old work - or it may not catch fire and yet seem like an old favorite.

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What’s new in romance this year with established authors? How does 2004 seem to be shaping up and how are all those variations coming along? For me 2004 is starting to look like a very good year for well-known authors. When we looked back at 2003 one thing that stood out was a lack of commonality in people’s reading. As Laurie pointed out, it wasn’t a year for blockbusters. There were no major releases that everyone was talking about the way that everyone had jumped right in to talk about Linda Howard's Mr. Perfect (2000), for example or Over the Edge (2001) by Suzanne Brockmann. Peoples’ votes for best books were unusually splintered with many books getting just a handful of votes.

That may happen again this year but I’ll be surprised if it does. Out of the fifty books I have read this year and there do seem to be an unusual number of "big" books on my reading list ie. books I just had to read because I thought everyone would be talking about them. What are they? What was fun? Here is my take.

In the area of historicals this was a year that was just bound to stir up conversation. Laura Kinsale released her long awaited sequel to For My Lady’s Heart, Shadowheart.

When I first heard the buzz on Shadowheart I almost couldn’t believe it. A masochist hero? A sadist heroine? The salacious side of me was dying to find out how Kinsale could pull this off within the very conservative confines of the romance genre. Its not that I had never read a romance with BDSM references. Tying somebody up seems to be becoming a standard sex scene and Regency heroines who say things like "punish me," (as does the heroine in Julia London’s Highlander Unbound) are on the rise. What was shocking about the buzz on Shadowheart was that we seemed to be talking about real pain here, real domination involving characters, not people playing "let's pretend."

My actual reading of Shadowheart turned out to be both better and worse than I expected. Hate to admit this but my salacious side was to be disappointed. Oh yes, the words were there and the heroine did hand out a surprising amount of pain to the hero. Kinsale made far more than the usual weak effort to incorporate the hero’s need for punishment into his relationship with the heroine. But for me, the romantic tension lessened considerably in the second half of the book. During that time the hero and heroine are physically separated, and their marrying and being together is deemed impossible. But the two love each other desperately and I didn’t feel the suspense I needed to feel about their feelings for one another.

But Shadowheart was also better than I expected. The external plot, which involves a power struggle between three Venetian families, was more detailed and better researched than most external historical plots. I don’t know much about Italian history, so I could be all wet, but Shadowheart felt right. I could see Venice, smell the canal, hear the clack of shoes on cobblestones. In the end my grade for the book was exactly that of our reviewer Nora Armstrong. Having said that, I must also say that it was also more weighty and more memorable than most B- books. It was a book worth talking about, a book people will remember for years. In fact, Shadowheart is more likely to stay in memory than the B+ books I have read this year and even some of the DIKs.

My favorite historical so far this year, is also a blockbuster with a lot of buzz. You can always tell when one of the AAR reviewers is thrilled with a book when she can’t wait to write the review and starts raving on our internal reviewers list. Both Liz Zink and Sandy Coleman couldn’t wait to tell us how much they enjoyed Lisa Kleypas’ Again the Magic, so I knew it was going to be good. What I didn’t know was how good it would be. I was initially put off by the blurb on the back of the book. The blurb describes a romance between Lady Aline Marsden and a footman on the estate. According to the plot the footman leaves the estate to make his fortune and returns with a "ruthless" plan to take revenge "on the woman who shattered his dreams of love."

I’m not sure what I was expecting after that blurb, maybe a hero who kept staring at the heroine and saying, "I will seduce you, my dear." My greatest dread was that the footman hero would be discovered to be a stolen baby, the heir to an earldom and that the "spoiled," heroine would go on an on about the hero’s inferiority - but be tempted by lust. Yuck.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Lady Aline and John McKenna begin the book as teenage lovers and the chemistry between them never wavered. McKenna may have had revenge in mind, but it is clear from the start that he is completely lost in love. This is the story of two people deeply in love and genuinely mistaking the feelings of the other. The initial separation may be a bit clichéd but the dynamics between them later on is not.

What really makes Again the Magic work though is Lisa Kleypas’ thorough understanding of what makes a man irresistible. John McKenna is English born but he is completely 19th century American in outlook. McKenna knows his worth and is grateful to have found a place, America, where he will be judged on his brains and hard work. He’s rough around the edges and doesn’t care who sees it but he is never crude or loutish two horrendous clichés that often affect Americans in romance novels. If you have ever read Mark Twain’s exchanges between Europeans and Americans, McKenna will seem a bit familiar. He desperately wants to show that side of himself to the woman he loves. But McKenna wants something besides Aline. He wants to return to America because he recognizes that England is a place where he will never command the respect he needs.

There is an exchange between Aline and John McKenna at the end of Again the Magic that will break your heart. In it John McKenna begs Aline to marry him saying that even if she doesn’t love him, he will accept that. He has enough love for both of them. Now this was my kind of guy and I was ready to hop right on that boat and sail back to New York with him myself.

Another "buzz" book this spring was Loretta Chase’s Miss Wonderful. Like Laura Kinsale, Loretta Chase has the mixed blessing of being the author of many readers "favorite book in the whole world" - Lord of Scoundrels. I liked Miss Wonderful very much, though I doubt it will go down in history with her memorable LOS. Miss Wonderful is the story of a dandy, Alistair Carsington, who tries to convince the heroine, Mirabel Oldridge to support the building of a canal, part of which would cross her property. The first half of this book struck me as excellent. Chase’s writing in the book is wonderful - a great deal like it is in her traditional Regencies - and much of the dialogue sparkles. Not only are the hero and heroine interesting, the secondary characters also stand out. Mirabel’s eccentric father, for example, is close to insane but with periods of lucidity that make you understand Mirabel’s predicament taking care of him. Because the setting is the English countryside and not London, we skip many Regency clichés. In fact the village life in this book reminded me of Georgette Heyer.

The first half of Miss Wonderful was a solid A for me. Unfortunately, in the second half, Mirabel starts to show some annoying character flaws. Rather than disagreeing with Alistair head on and arguing with him honestly about her concerns about the canal, Mirabel resorts to character assassination and innuendo in her campaign to stop the building of the canal. She meets Alistair’s constant request that she state her objections with the statement that were she to tell him her objections it would be like Wellington telling Napoleon his plans for Waterloo. There got to be a point where Mirabel’s obfuscation and dishonesty became just plain annoying. It’s one thing to oppose something. It is another thing entirely to fight purely through backstabbing and smear campaigns. The solution to the problem is also somewhat unsatisfying. Turns out the canal is more expensive and difficult than a rail line. This makes everyone happy. Given the noise, pollution and general unpleasantness in living near a rail line, I found this "progress" a big unrealistic - though on reflection it just might be the 19th century point of view on the problem. In spite of Mirabel’s lack of directness, Miss Wonderful got a B+ from me in my reading log.

Liz Carlyle’s Deal with the Devil is another book by a well-known author that hit it just right. Liz Carlyle has been an auto-buy for me since her first book, My False Heart, in 1999. But, for some reason her last few releases have been a bit of a disappointment. Not so much of a disappointment to stop me buying her books, but enough to have me putting them on the tbr pile rather than reading them right away.

Deal with the Devil brought back a lot of what drew me to Liz Carlyle in the first place. It is the story of a Aubrey, a brilliant housekeeper, and Giles, the heir to an estate, who initially get to know each other by writing letters. Aubrey’s letters are particularly funny and recall another wonderful book, Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy. The atmospheric Deal with the Devil provides a wonderful sense of place; one can visualize Giles and Aubrey walking through it and surveying the crumbling walls. The external plot of the book involves the possible murder of the hero’s uncle. All the evidence points to Aubrey but the Giles never believes her capable of it, which makes the romance more believable. My grade - B+

Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me was the best contemporary I’ve read in a long time. Despite the pacing problem I recently discussed in an ATBF segment, Bet Me was memorably wonderful and hilariously funny. Min is as sharp as they come and Cal is equally interesting.

Bet Me got me realizing that brains and a certain amount of maturity are deal breakers for me in contemporary romance. While I can sympathize with historical heroines who chafe under the rule of fathers, brothers and even lovers, I find beautiful spoiled contemporary women too annoying to read about. This explains why the heroine of Julia London’s recent Beauty Queen got under my skin. A gorgeous, wealthy woman who has gotten everything she has ever wanted just by existing - and then complains about it - is too irritating to read about. Min, by contrast, is the kind of woman who has earned every thing she’s ever gotten, pays her bills on time and out of her own pocket, and has never given it a thought. She’s not unattractive but she doesn’t have much fashion sense. She’s funny and loving to her friends, but a lot of people who don’t know her probably think she’s a stuffed shirt. I liked her just fine.

My last big blockbuster was Mary Balogh’s Slightly Tempted, the early spring release in the Slightly series. Slightly Tempted earned a B from me, but it was a strong B and a memorable book. Gervase Ashford, the hero is in a feud with the Duke of Bewcastle and tries to seduce the Duke’s younger sister, Morgan. Morgan came to Brussels with friends to watch the battle but stays behind as a nurse. Some of the book takes place in Brussels during the Battle of Waterloo and for me, the setting made the book stand out. I have liked all the books in this series, even the ones that received poor reviews.

So what do you think? Is this a blockbuster year? Do any of these books stand out for you or do you have other favorites? I am looking forward to hearing about you favorites for the first half of 2004.

Reading & Me for 2004 (Laurie Likes Books)

As Robin delved into the best of her 2004 reading, I thought I'd take a look at my own 2004 reading. After reading fewer books last year than I'd read in years and being quite depressed and frustrated about it, I made it my goal to read 100 books in 2004. I'm well on my way and in fact recently finished my 72nd book of the year and am curious what your reading goals were for this year, if you have any, and how you're doing in achieving them.

Well over half the books I've read thus far are romances; two titles by MaryJanice Davidson were labeled romance but for me they were not, so I'm designating them "romance hybrids." To the right is a table of the various types of books I've read so far this year. They run the gamut from Non-Fiction to Young Adult Fiction to Erotica.

Book Type Percent Read
Erotica
1%
Fantasy
1%
Hist Fiction
1%
Fiction
3%
Suspense
3%
Non-Fiction
3%
Rom Hybrids
3%
Horror
4%
Chick Lit
7%
YA Fiction
10%
Romance
63%

As far as which years these books were published, not even one-third are 2004 releases, but of those that are from this year, the majority are romances. The oldest book was published in 1982 as part of an on-going Morgan Llywelyn glom; it is the prehistoric fiction novel The Horse Goddess. What's the oldest book you've read this year, have most of the books you've read been romances, and what's the percentage of 2004-published books to books published in previous years?

My Llywelyn glom seems to have run its course; I've now read all of her pre-1900s historical novels and really am not interested in her post-1900s novels. I wish she'd write more ancient and medieval novels. As for gloms this year, I went on one for Mary Balogh as well, reading six of her traditional Regencies very close together. Glom-reading occupied much of my reading so far this year; nearly half the books I read were parts of gloms (and mini-gloms) for 11 authors that crossed genres and included Romance, YA Fiction, Erotica, and Non-Fiction.

Type Romance Percent Read
Hist Romance
2%
Vamp Romance
2%
Contemp Romance
7%
West Hist Romance
7%
Eur Hist Romance
24%
Series Romance
26%
Regency Romance
33%
Type Romance A B C D F
Hist Romance
0
1
0
0
0
Vamp Romance
0
0
1
0
0
Contemp Romance
0
2
1
0
0
West Hist Romance
0
2
1
0
0
Eur Hist Romance
0
6
4
1
0
Series Romance
0
3
6
3
0
Regency Romance
1
8
5
1
0
--Totals--
1
22
18
5
0

As you can see from the tables above, I continued to read a lot of traditional Regencies this year; a third of the romances read were trads, and my only DIK of the year was a trad - Catherine Blair's A Family for Gillian. Next in line following trads were Series (Category) Romances, followed, by a much lesser extent, by Contemporary and Western Historical Romances (these two sub-genres tied). Two of my reads were single title Contemporaries, and finishing out the list are a Vampire Romance and an Historical Romance. It seems the only sub-genre unread thus far this year is the Medieval.

As to how much I've enjoyed my reading, the good news is that no book earned an F from me, and fewer than one in ten earned D's. Just over four in ten earned C's, and nearly half earned B's, although the majority of these B's were B-'s. Again, only one book earned DIK status - 2001's traditional Regency, A Family for Gillian.

Robin discussed many of the "big books" she read and enjoyed; she makes it a point to read what others are reading, an entirely admirable quality that I wish I could exhibit. More and more I read only what interests me outside books I'm assigned to read for review purposes, although I "keep up" with discussions on the books readers discuss for obvious reasons. So I'll talk about the books I most enjoyed, which will come from the group of books I graded in the A or B range, beginning with A Family for Gillian.

In searching AAR it seems that reviewer Jane Jorgenson, one of my "separated-at-birth" colleagues at the site, enjoyed Blair's book nearly as much as I did. Unlike many romance readers, I'm not at all averse to children being part of romances - unless, of course, they're window dressing in the way that careers so often are. And given my proclivity for governess romances and other romances featuring historical heroes who marry heroines to care for their children, it's really no surprise that I enjoyed this book. I guess the surprise was at how very much I liked it.

While Blair's book is a traditional Regency and doesn't break new ground, this quiet and sweet romance truly is a buried treasure; those who think Zebra Regencies can't hold a candle to those published by Signet might change their mind after digging up a copy of this one. A Family for Gillian features a heroine who faked her own ruin to avoid marriage, only to end up married anyway to the widowed son of her obnoxious mother's best friend, who needs help raising his three children. So Miss Gillian Harwell is sent to the Irish countryside to meet and marry the proper Viscount Prescott Avery, a man who dearly loved his quiet wife and holds his family close to the vest.

Gillian is altogether too pretty, smart, and fun, which scares him to death; how can he feel attracted to her after so loving his first wife? He determines never to consummate their marriage, something that's understood from the start by both characters. As for the children, the youngest has a "twisted foot" and is treated with kid gloves by one and all; everyone believes she's as frail and fragile as her mother had been. The middle child is all boy and the eldest, another girl, is a termagant; on the day of Gillian's arrival she discovers a fish in the teapot; guess who put it there?

I adore stories like this one, where the heroine enters her new surroundings like a breath of fresh air, and confounds its inhabitants by her seemingly odd behavior, which is precisely what happens with Gillian and Avery. She doesn't act like the typical female by moping or crying when she fails to get her way, and while her behavior is at times inappropriate by her husband's family's standards, his children are responsive, and so is he. Unfortunately, it takes him some time to let her into his life and to loosen up to the changes she brings, which creates some lonely times for Gillian. But this is no romp, and Gillian is no Regency-era hippie-chick. This is a fairly subtle book, and that's one reason why it's so stirring. Gillian simply brings life to a dead house and a man with a dead heart and reading it was a wonderful experience for me. The book is a DIK for me, but I've not had the time to write a DIK review of it; if anyone else loved it as much as I did, please email our DIK Editor. Though Catherine Blair has written a number of books and novellas, this is the only one I've loved; her novella in the Untameable anthology failed to move me as Gillian did.

While I've read a number of B's this year, not many were B+'s. Five out of 22 B's earned B+'s from me, and only two are 2004-published books - Nonnie St. George's Courting Trouble, which I've already discussed at length in a recent ATBF issue, and MaryJanice Davidson's Undead and Unwed, also discussed at length in another recent ATBF column. Four of the five are straight romances - Undead is one of those hybrids I mentioned earlier. The other three B+'s are older romances. The oldest is Mary Balogh's The Obedient Bride; it was published in 1989. The next oldest is another Mary Balogh, 1991's The Ideal Wife. And the newest is Loretta Chase's now-classic 1996 release, Lord of Scoundrels.

It's taken me years to fall in love with Mary Balogh's writing; now that I have I can't imagine why it took so very long. There are very few authors whom I'm allotted as many "chances" as I have Balogh, and she's the only one who's been worth the effort to date. Do you have any favorite authors now that at one point you didn't care for? Who are they? With Balogh my love affair with her writing doesn't extend to her single title historicals, but that's okay; I've still a number of her old trads TBR. What I notice most when I talk about Mary Balogh is that I'm always saying, "I've never read this in another romance." Given that I'm a traditionalist and don't really care all that much for pushing the envelope, it says something that when I say it about Balogh, it's a compliment. And part of being a traditionalist is that I don't generally want to read romances featuring infidelity. For any reader to deny herself the poignancy of The Obedient Bride because of that would be a shame. If any romance were about the power of love, this one surely is.

After Lord Geoffrey Astor inherits a country estate, he plans to marry one of the family's daughters so the family will not lose their home. He assumes he will be marrying the eldest daughter, who's 21, and while he's not pleased to be marrying, at least she's a looker. Unfortunately, the family assumed Lord Astor was an old man and so petite and girlish 18-year-old Arabella, the middle of three sisters, offered herself up as the sacrificial lamb so that her eldest sister might marry the man she loves.

Lord Astor doesn't know what to make of Arabella, who seems entirely unsuitable to be his wife. She doesn't know how to converse, and dresses so that she looks even younger than she is. He takes her and her older sister back to London after the wedding so that Arabella will have company while he resumes his relationship with his mistress. Not only does Lord Astor believe he and his wife are simply alien to one another, he's under the mistaken impression that wives always find sex a burden, and it never occurs to him that he might discover for himself whether this is fact or fiction.

Arabella is so taken with her husband's good looks and charm that she becomes all the more shy around him, even though she manages to charm all those around her. She also determines that she's simply too plump and begins to lose weight, something that becomes something of a subplot of its own throughout the rest of the book. Her life becomes one of doing her duty - she is indeed the obedient wife - but it's a pleasant duty. She is willing to try and please her husband until she discovers that their marriage vows did not mean the same to him as they did to her. It's at this point that Arabella gives her husband a set-down that had me in tears. She continues to be the obedient wife, but she lets him know in no uncertain terms that in the future she will react only out of duty and not the willingness she'd shown until then to please her husband.

There are another 80 pages that follow this particular moment in the book, plenty of time for the effect of this conversation to take hold, and plenty of time during which Lord Astor can redeem himself in the eyes of his obedient and idealistic wife. This isn't one of those books where the hero repents on the last page and we're supposed to believe he's changed for good. That's one reason why this story works. Doing the right thing because you want to, because you want to make someone proud and happy, that by making another person happy you can create an unselfish happiness within yourself, is another. Arabella may have been a girlish and sheltered 18 at the start of the book, but she had the backbone to create for herself a happy marriage in the end. And how the author handled Arabella's weight was quite wonderful too.

Both The Obedient Bride and The Ideal Wife feature terrific love scenes, but again, these scenes are not the usual ones we've come to expect in romance novels, let alone trads. Arabella lies like a china doll during her first time with her husband, and though some subsequent beddings are not painful or unpleasant, because he is so sexually selfish she isn't given the opportunity to feel what true love-making can be. Balogh is a master at using scenes of intimacy to really advance her stories, and the final love scene in The Obedient Bride is masterful in this regard, particularly since the hero's selfishness earlier on is made so tangible in their couplings. I can't remember, other than reading Catherine Anderson's Phantom Waltz, being so personally invested in a heroine's orgasm before.

While my copy of The Ideal Wife featured more typos than I think I've ever come across in any other book, it remains a wonderful read. Though some of the subject matter is intense, it isn't one of Balogh's darker books, and yet it's no romp either. Miss Abigail Gardiner must find employment, and when she arrives at the home of distant relative Miles Ripley, the Earl of Severn, she is given quite a shock - the handsome earl proposes to her just a few minutes after they've met. Rather than be pushed into a marriage by his mother to a beautiful but vapid woman, he decides that if he can marry a plain, quiet woman, he'll be able to produce an heir and get on with his regular life while his wife and family rusticate in the country.

Abigail is not at all plain or quiet, something she manages to hide from him during that first meeting. Miles' "ideal wife" does turn out to be his ideal, but not in the ways he'd imagined. When he sees how easily she handles his overbearing mother and sister, he's quite impressed, and though he dreads the idea of being managed by yet another woman in his life, he seems to fall into it quite easily where Abby is concerned. She makes him laugh and he will do anything to make her happy. If this sounds like a romp, it could have been, but Abby's got a big secret that makes things darker, and, when she learns why Miles really married her, she draws inward and Miles fears losing her. It is only through his patience and love that he earns and secures her trust so that they can be happy together.

There is wonderful dialogue in this book, and again, some wonderful love scenes. Like Lord Astor, Miles believes wives don't enjoy intercourse. Abby gets her orgasm sooner than Arabella does, but Miles is in for a big surprise late in the book when he learns that even women sometimes enjoy lovemaking simply out of physical need. Readers who won't read traditional Regencies because they're too staid really miss something when they won't read authors who manage to convey quite a bit of sensuality without the sometimes mindless boinking we find in "hotter" romances.

My final B+ so far in 2004 is Lord of Scoundrels, published in 1996, about Miss Jessica Trent, who goes to Paris to rescue her brother from a ruinous association with a group of rogues led by the infamous Sebastian, Marquess of Dain, aka Lord of Scoundrels. Dain grew up believing himself to be a hulking brute and has a fairly sizable chip on his shoulder as a result. It's impossible for him to believe that any woman could find anything whatsoever attractive about him other than his bank account. Which is why, when he meets Jessica and she is instantly - and obviously - smitten with him, he's thrown off balance and it takes the remainder of the book for him to regain any semblance of it. It takes a bullet wound, a compromise, and a threat of legal action before the two marry. It's a grudging marriage at the start; both feel forced into it, and yet neither can deny that each feels an intense mutual attraction. Complicating this internal conflict are Dain's insecurities about his attractiveness as a man, which creates possibly the best self-talk I've ever read. His insecurity, how he thinks about himself, and how he talks to himself about Jessica's reaction to him is very, very sexy, and very, very fun.

Lord of Scoundrels is a book I've tried to read something like a half-dozen times in the past, but never got through the first couple of chapters. Most readers think this is one of the best, if not the best, that romance has to offer, and that the first half of the book, in particular, is perfect. I will agree that this is a wonderful, wonderful romance, but for me the second half was perfect, and the reason it didn't earn DIK status from me was that there was too much in the first half that slowed it down for me. And since I'm talking so much about sex this time around, I'll add that I'm not ashamed to admit that it's the love scenes in the second half that really won me over, because: Jessica Trent's reactions to Sebastian Dain's physical and sexual self were incredibly refreshing given his description of himself; Sebastian's reactions to Jessica's adoration of his self were witty, charming, and sexy; and because Jessica was no mealy-mouthed maiden when it came to sex. She maneuvered what she wanted, and she wanted plenty, which was perfect since Sebastian was just the man to give it to her - every which way. This is yet another book - yet very different from the subtle sensuality found in the two Balogh's - that uses lovemaking to truly forward a storyline.

Moving into my straight B's, a few are actually 2004 releases. They are The Royal Treatment, Smooth Talkin' Stranger, and Dead to the World. The first is one of those romance hybrids by MaryJanice Davidson I mentioned earlier, and Dead to the World is one of Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse vampire/mystery/romances we featured last month in ATBF. As for Lorraine Heath, I'm a tremendous fan of her writing and sorely miss her Western Historicals. I've followed her into Victorian England (another straight B for me this year was 2002's To Marry an Heiress), but wasn't sure how happy I'd be that she'd begun writing contemporary romances. And so it was with an almost grudging attitude that I read Smooth Talkin' Stranger.

Back in April I wrote a segment about what's sexy in a man, and mentioned the hero from Smooth Talkin' Stranger as an example of how I'm changing, and what I find sexy in a man is changing over the years. This past weekend, as part of a DIY project we're doing (giving our daughter the 12-year-old's room she's been wanting), I told my husband how masterful I found him. He looked at me and said, "What's that mean?" After all, Jewish men aren't the most handy men in the world. But after watching him install two rods for window treatments in a matter of moments after having struggled with them myself for a day, I was incredibly impressed by his handling of a cordless drill and stud-finder. Competence in day-to-day life is not something to be overlooked; I looked at my husband with a new-found respect and additional lust in my heart after we hung the new window treatments.

In Smooth Talkin' Stranger, the widowed Serena and her son are staying with her father in a small, Texas town after the death of her mother. She's incredibly lonely and meets a man at a bar, goes home with him, and the two share a night of passion. The man, Hunter, believes Serena's married and wonders why she's cheating on her husband. The two meet again fairly soon, and while she's sorely tempted to hook up for another night of wondrous sex, she backs out at the very last minute.

Hunter is a CIA agent and he's not the kind of man who looks for commitment, but he's drawn to Serena, even though he knows she's "better" than the kind of woman he usually hooks up with. When he learns something he believes would destroy their relationship if revealed, he still can't stay away, although it takes a whopper of a romance novel convention to bring them together in marriage. Which is, quite frankly, one of Heath's strong suits; she can take a conventional premise or plot point and make it work simply by virtue of her brilliant characterizations.

I consider Hunter to be one of the most competent and confident heroes I've ever read, but that doesn't mean he's not messed up. After all, the information he believes would destroy their relationship is, well, so not something that would really destroy a relationship. But he's strong, he's competent in the world, and exudes an air of confidence simply because of his strength and abilities that I found incredibly sexy. Hunter may be an emotional basket-case, but you'd never know it from the outside, from the way he moves, acts, and reacts to what's going on around him. A woman can feel safe with him, secure in the knowledge that when they're together, no bad will befall her or her family. Hunter may be alpha all the way, but he's no bad boy.

I mentioned earlier that I find it admirable for Robin to read so many new romances each year. Having never been much of a joiner I've never felt a similar pull, even though, given what I do here at AAR, I probably should. Oh well. But when I visited the bookstore earlier this week - the day after we posted a B- review of a Mary Burton western historical published by Harlequin Historicals, I went immediately to the store's "stacks," where the used books are (new books are up front) and grabbed not only three Mary Burton titles but another 2003 release by Kate Bridges. Lynn Spencer, who reviewed the Burton, and I sometimes have similar tastes (she's the one who led me to another HH author, Kate Bridges, to begin with), and I'm trying to take my own advice, given so freely in the last ATBF, about trying more Harlequin Historicals, and to read more Western Historicals since they've worked fairly well for me this year. So when I got home with my bag of new and old books, the first one I grabbed was not one of the new releases, but an older Mary Burton title, from 2000 - A Bride for McCain. And I followed that up with Bridges' A Midwife's Secret, and I'm glad I did. Neither are perfect books, but they had some strong moments and good writing. Of course, that now puts me at 74 books for the year...

Before I sign off I'm going to mention one last book, an upcoming release, that I think is going to be a major hit with readers. It's Crazy Hot by Tara Janzen, the new pen name for Glenna McReynolds. Since the book won't be out until September I won't say much about it other than that it's the first in a series featuring dangerous bad boys gone good, larger than life characters, incendiary romances (the first book featured two scorching love stories), and the kind of chemistry that reminded me of Linda Howard - you know, the kind of chemistry where the characters' want sucks all the air out of the room. Action-adventure romances aren't at the top of my list so this didn't earn a top grade from me, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Here's how you know I liked the book: I'll be reading the sequel that comes out in October.

Time to Post to the Message Board

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

As we are at the mid-point of 2004, now is a good time to assess how the year is shaping up. In addition to finding out whether or not you think 2004 is shaping up as a year for blockbusters and which 2004 releases are among your favorites, I'd also like to know how many books you've read so far this year. Did you set yourself a goal to read a certain number of books this year, and if so, are you on track, or ahead or behind where you'd like to be? Are you annoyed if you don't read as much as you'd like or as much as you'd planned?

What's the mix of books you've read in terms of date of publication and type of book, and what's the oldest book you read this year? And if you grade or rate books you read, what's your scale for the year look like? When I first started to read romance back in 1994 it's all I read for several years. When did you start to read romance, and did you go "exclusive," and if so, for how long did you remain "exclusive?" Are you still exclusively a romance reader?

Something else I'd like to know is if there are authors you didn't particularly care for in the past who are now among your favorites. If there are, who are they, and how many chances did you give them? What's the greatest number of chances you've given an author, and in general, how many strikes does a new-to-you author get before she's out? For me it's usually one, but occasionally I'll try two books, and even more rarely I'll try three - I think I've done that with three authors altogether, stopping at two and a half for those other than Balogh.

And, finally, Robin mentioned that though her grade for Shadowheart is "only" a B-, she's thought about it more than many books that have earned hire grades. Have you had similar experiences that you'd care to share about a book that stayed with you and made you think even though you didn't necessarily adore it?

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

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