September 15, 2005 - Issue #207

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

In this issue of At the Back Fence, Robin, Anne, and I focus on connected books. Robin starts things off with a fond remembrance of Dick and Jane, and speculates that the connected books we read as part of our elementary education actually train us in a sense, to enjoy connected books as an adult. Robin's segment leads into one from Anne and me. We hope you enjoy it and look forward to hearing from you on the At the Back Fence Message Board after you've digested the column.

Why I Love Connected Books Even When They Are Silly (Robin Uncapher)

Have you ever wondered what became of Dick and Jane and all of the other people who once populated elementary school textbooks? I have. Sometimes when I look over my children’s school materials, I am stunned by the coldness of it all. Where are the familiar characters who populated the schoolbooks of yesteryear, the days when every subject had a family whose main interest in life centered on a primary school subject? These characters showed up every week in Chapters One through Twenty-six always with an exciting adventure such as seeing the Saint Lawrence Seaway! (Geography) Going to the grocery store! (Arithmetic) Visiting Grandma. (Grammar) Even our penmanship books (yes there really were penmanship books) had a photograph of a young lady whose perfect posture would lead to impeccable Palmer Method. Naturally she remained a constant throughout the book.

Reading books in first, second and third grade had the most recurring characters. Starting with The Adventures of Dick and Jane, we read stories populated by a familiar cast of characters. Every year teachers passed out new books, and when they did, I was always curious - would Tim and Eddie, the heroes of Third Grade Arithmetic, show up in Marching Through Mathematics, the new fourth grade text? (Tim was always going to the store for his mother, buying twelve oranges for 22 cents. Mother gave him thirty cents and he had eight cents left! How much candy could he and Bobby buy?) Would the Carter family of Tracy, Bobby and baby Lucy show up in the new Language Roundup 4, the new grammar workbook that followed the fascinating Language Roundup 3, or would some new family take their place?

My performance as a student in those early school years was not impressive. I spent far too much time looking out of the window daydreaming about the people in my books. Practicing penmanship, reciting the times tables and memorizing spelling words and parts of speech, bored me silly. Trapped as I was at my yellow Formica desk, I often found myself daydreaming and wondering about the families in the illustrations of my books.

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Textbook writers had the same white Beaver Cleaver style suburban families show up in every book. Who were they, I wondered? Those children were all so good. Their mothers were never tired, their fathers never groused when they paid the bills. They were friends with Mr. Postman, Mr. Fireman and Mr. Police Officer. Mother baked cookies, went to the store, and hung the laundry on the line all while wearing a shirtwaist dress, a ruffled,starched apron...and pumps. The little girls, who all had names like Lucy, Susan, or Mary, wore perfectly ironed dresses with leather shoes and ankle socks - but Lucy and Mary never left theirs on the floor and got spanked or sent to the corner as I sometimes did. They were always polite and used perfect grammar. The boys (Jimmy, Johnny, or Bobby) got to play with puppies and hit a baseball in the yard with Dad. Everyone was happy and perfect, with the exception of Goofus in Highlights magazine, who always did the wrong thing so that Gallant could do the right thing and teach us all a valuable lesson about begin a good and kind person.

Daydreaming, I thought it would be fun if Mary and Susan, who jumped rope at 30 turns a minute, would leave off calculating the turns and go solve a mystery like Nancy Drew. Dick and Jane were brother and sister but they always behaved nicely. Sometimes I longed for Dick hit to Jane with his dump truck.

You might think this odd, but I missed these two dimensional people when I moved on to more grownup books that did not use this device. Why is this? Why did I, who hated those mealy mouthed perfect children, miss them? I think it is because having a familiar character can somehow humanize a subject for a child, or for anyone. There is something about having a familiar character show up in unfamiliar material,that can make that material seem less strange. It can also make the information somehow more accessible and, when one has an old character, to read about in a story, it seems to take much less energy to read that story,

Thinking about the current popularity of connected romance novels I could not help but wonder if the popularity of connected books is somehow related to the ever shortening attention span of the average American reader. Am I the only person who thinks it takes less energy to read a story about a character who has shown up as a minor character in two or three other stories? Am I the only one who thinks that this alone might account for the death of short stories in women’s magazines?

I enjoy connected stories, Julia Quinn’s books have been favorites of mine for years, but the Bridgertons are something special and I pay close attention to the walk-ons of new characters to have clues to who is coming next. Mary Balogh’s Slightly series is my favorite kind of connected series. In a number of those books, important supporting characters, such as Lauren (the bride left at the altar in One Night for Love), show up to star in later books. And the joy of this is that those characters do not have personality transplants. Wulfric, the stern, cold, and domineering neighbor in A Summer to Remember shows up as the stern, cold, and domineering hero in Slightly Dangerous. Lauren, the extremely conventional dumped fiancé in One Night for Love finally finds love with a man desperate for a woman who knows how to be a perfect lady in A Summer to Remember.

One benefit of connected books is that we have already developed a mental picture of setting and characters of a new book. To me this seems like less work than learning about an entirely new place and new people. Its nice to know where the Bridgertons live, how they grew up and what their mother is like, without having to learn it from scratch. Maybe I am just that kind of person. As a child I loved reading the three page description of the Bobbsey family printed in each and every Bobbsey Twin book. (My grandparents used to ask if they could skip it as they read it to me and I never would agree.) I also loved the opening pages of every Nancy Drew book in which her friends George and Bess, her father Carson Drew, and her (strangely asexual) boyfriend Ned Nickerson were described.

It always seems to me that romance writers are at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to developing connected stories. Mystery writers can use the same lead character again and again. Nobody cares that Hercule Poirot is solving a new mystery in each book. But romance readers, much as they long to see familiar faces, do not want their favorite hero or heroine moving on to a new love interest. It’s a tough thing to write a romance and connect the characters in more than a cursory way. All of us have read romance novels where characters from older novels appear in silly cameo roles, usually ecstatically happy with loads of adorable children. Even worse are the books where the author, desperate to explain her characters, has an old couple appear and give a synopsis of their story: “Hello, I am Theodore and this is my wife Mabel. Before we became ecstatically happy, Mabel and I were forced to enter into a false engagement made necessary when she eloped with my other brother Brutus."

For me a really good connected series has some kind of rationale for the main characters remaining together. Suzanne Brockmann’s SEAL books work well because, unlike many romances, they really are a combination of adventure story and romance. We don’t need to hear everyone’s backstory because being a crack Navy SEAL is reason enough for anyone to be on a team.

Sometimes I think that writers like Mary Balogh and Jo Beverley, both of whom write a very solid Regency London, hardly need to connect their characters. The settings of their books are so familiar to those of us who read them, that they hardly need introduction. In fact I have often thought that the romance publishing obsession with Regency England may be a kind of extension of the connected books craze. Romance readers are so comfortable with Regency settings and stock Regency characters that I sometimes think that they all might as well be related.

My only real problem with connected books comes when an author assumes that I have read all of the previous books and remember every character. This has happened to me with Liz Carlyle's books. I happen to love her books but have to admit that it often a long time between readings. I read so many romance novels that plots and names of characters often slip my mind, so a book where an old character is re-introduced without a lot of description, can be difficult.

But in the end, I am glad for connected books. I read romance for the pure joy of it, and the relaxation involved in returning to old beloved characters is something not to be missed. I am wondering what all of you think of this. Do you find that reading a series of books can be more relaxing than reading books that are not connected? Do you find it comforting to know that old friends are still out there, even if they are showing up with multiple children in silly cameo roles?

Let us know.

Connected Books (Anne Marble and Laurie Likes Books)

One of the biggest trends in romance today is the connected book. Connected books have been around for a while. In the early days of romance, authors such as Valerie Sherwood and Rosemary Rogers followed the exploits of their "super couples" - and their families. Traditionally, a sequel would continue the story of the same characters in the previous release, but in today's romance novels, this is most often not the case. Instead, because the HEA requires that the original couple remain together, "sequels" as we know them today feature family and/or friends of the original book's couple.

In the "super couple" books, the couples often broke up and got back together because if they were always happy, there would not have been enough conflict to sustain the stories. During this period, romances were often quite a bit longer and more "epic" in style, so continuing the saga in a subsequent book was fitting. Bertrice Small even managed to take one heroine, Skye O'Malley, and follow her through multiple love relationships in a series she began in 1980. Maybe this changed because fans started to demand true HEAs, our attention spans shortened, and these "super couples" fell out of favor. Where once the trend was "super couples," you might say that today we have "super sequels" - related books following the family and/or friends of the original book's couple. And where a book fifteen years ago may have been followed by one or two sequels, we can call today's sequels "super sequels" because many series seem to have no end.

Today's "super sequels" feature family and/or friends of the original book's couple, generally with an appearance (at least) of the couple from the earlier release. Catherine Coulter, when interviewed by Laurie back in 1996, claimed responsibility for the change in definition. Her Devil's Daughter, published in 1984, is the story of the daughter whose parents' romance appeared in 1983's Devil's Embrace. And in 1984 Coulter published two books that set up two different series - the Song series and the Star series. Since that time Coulter has written five other historical series, including the long-running Sherbrooke series. The latest release in that series, Lyon's Gate, actually linked together not only Sherbrookes, but characters from her Legacy and Night series as well.

Coulter may claim responsibility, but Johanna Lindsey was also an early pioneer in writing connected romances. In fact, the first book in her Viking series was published in 1984. Given that the second book in this series did not appear until 1987, perhaps the original release was never meant to have a "sequel," but Lindsey also marked the publication of Heart of Thunder in 1984, and its sequel, Glorious Angel, was published the very next year.

And at the same time as Coulter and Lindsey were writing connected historical romances, Nora Roberts had begun doing the same. Her early category titles, published in the early 1980s, were often connected and her first connected single titles appeared in 1987 and 1988.

Particularly in historicals, the connected series of romances is now de rigueur, and it has grown in popularity over the years as well. And just as the traditional notion of a sequel changed back in the early 1980s to include family and friends, it began to evolve yet again several years ago, most notably with Suzanne Brockmann. One of the reasons she began to write about Navy SEALS - both in her Tall, Dark, and Dangerous series for Silhouette and her Troubleshooter series of single title releases - is that they offer an inexhaustible supply of heroes. Whereas in most series of connected books a lead from book three is related to - by kinship or friendship - to a lead in book one, in Brockmann's world, the relationship is the uniform, which expands the concept.

Today is really the heyday of connected books, for both good and bad. We'd call it a "golden age," but not everybody likes connected books, and not all series are worth their weight in gold. Still, if you like connected books, you have both more books and more resources at your beck and call than ever before.

It's not as if there was a shortage of connected books in the past. However, those books often came out over a longer span of time, sometimes with years between books (Lindsey's Viking series, for example). That's not always the case today, with books in some series being scheduled to come out within mere months of each other. In the past, you could often read a book without even knowing it was part of a series. Publishers usually didn't indicate that books were a part of a series, unless it was something like the Angelique books. So you could read a book that was part of a series without realizing it. Coming across familiar characters was a pleasant - and unexpected - surprise. Compare that to today's marketplace, where most connected books are clearly labeled as being part of a series, and where connected books are so much more common that some readers believe a stand-alone book is the exception today rather than the rule.

Nowadays it seems that whether a hero is a Regency lord or a vampire (or both), he can't walk upon this world without dragging along several virile brothers (and beautiful sisters) waiting for a book of their own. Or failing that, the hero will be a member of a secret group of Regency hunks (or vampires) who have joined together because they are all former spies, or all hate their fathers, or all want to save the world from evil wraiths, or whatever. Don't get me wrong - this sort of thing can make for some great connected books. On the other hand, it sometimes (some readers would say often) comes across as contrived. Can't any romance heroes be only children? And what's with all the clubs? Are these men Regency nobility, or are they the Little Rascals? It gets so that when you find out a hero has brothers, you start to fear that the brothers will all get their own books. After all, if you like book one, you may feel the need to read all the way through book seven. Conversely, in book one the author may spend too much time setting up characters and plot lines for future books, kind of like the politician who gets elected and then neglects his campaign promises to work on getting reelected. Or in book seven too much emphasis may be given to couples from books one through six, and less time is devoted to the new couple in order to share in the celebration of the earlier couples, still so hot for each other that they have several bratty children running around. What's even worse is what Laurie calls the "replicative fading effect," so named in honor of the "Up the Long Ladder" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which a civilization built entirely from clones is in danger of dying out as each subsequent generation is weaker than the preceding generation. In a series of connected books, there is often a point beyond which new couples suffer in comparison to earlier couples from the series.

On the other hand, most of us keep buying books in our favorite series, and we often ask authors when the next one is to be released. So clearly, we like connected books, even if we sometimes wince when we come across another hero with lots of siblings or friends. Or cousins.

The Types of Connected Books

For the most part, in romance, there are two kinds of connected books. The first kind is the most common - loosely connected books that follow a new couple in each volume. In addition to Catherine Coulter's many historical series there are Johanna Lindsey's Malory books, Jo Beverley's Malloren stories, Julia Quinn's series (including the Bridgerton books), Mary Balogh's Slightly series, and Victoria Alexander's Effington books, to name but a few. The second, and rarer kind of connected book is the type that follows one couple through a number of books, such as J.D. Robb's (aka Nora Roberts) In Death series or Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books.

Some authors combine the two types of series. For example, each of Suzanne Brockmann's Troubleshooters books is about a different couple, but there is also a lot of attention given to recurring couples - so much so that they often got more attention than the hero and heroine. Long-time visitors to AAR's boards will remember the many discussions (and arguments) about Sam and Alyssa that set fire to the boards long before they got their own book. Also, because of the worldbuilding, while most paranormal romance series fit in the first category, they don't always fit in there comfortably. In a way, this is because the worldbuilding is almost a character in itself. While these stories generally cover a different couple in each book, the worldbuilding builds up from volume to volume, much in the same way the In Death books follow the relationship of Eve and Roarke. Over time, the worldbuilding can get so complicated that new readers might get confused if they try to join a series in midstream.

Each type of series has its advantages and disadvantages. The loosely connected series lets authors explore a different couple in each book while still staying in a familiar setting. This means that they are less likely to get fed up with their couple, and so are readers. On the other hand, this gives the author less time to delve into the relationship because they're tied to that one book instead of having a chance to show us how it grows over time. Let's face it, some couples need more than one book - such as Eve and Roarke or Claire and Jamie. These characters are today's "super couples" of romance novels.

In the past, when bodice ripping, swashbuckling, and stories told in an epic fashion were prevalent, it was more common to find series about the same couple. Today, however, recurring main characters tend to be found only in hybrid books. J.D. Robb has managed to sustain a single couple throughout her lengthy In Death series, which is often shelved in the mystery section of the bookstore, and many consider the Outlander books to be historical fiction rather than romance. Authors Amanda Quick and Dara Joy have also flirted with true "sequels," but it's very difficult to sustain the sort of sexual tension necessary in today's romance for this to work. Quick has been somewhat more successful than Joy, but this is not an idea that has caught on in straight romances.

More recently though, in hybrid romances, authors such as Charlaine Harris with her Southern Vampire series and MaryJanice Davidson in her Undead books, have begun to really sell the idea of the more traditional sequel, although these books may have more in common with Skye O'Malley than Eve and Roarke in that the focus is on the heroine. In Harris' series, for instance, Sookie Stackhouse - like Anita Blake before her - has a number of "men" interested in her, and while Vampire Queen Betsy Taylor is tied to only the undead Eric Sinclair, the Undead books are more chick lit and paranormal than they are romance.

For now, the traditional genre romance setup is still "one main couple, one book." This could change, particularly with more readers turning to chick lit, complicated paranormals, and the like. So who knows? We might see more romances about continuing couples in the near future. To further confuse things, there are also series of related books put out by Harlequin and Silhouette - does that make them series series books? Most of these series are created by editors and written by numerous authors, all working from an in-house "series bible." Reaction to these continuity series, at least among AAR's staff, has generally been tepid. There may be one good book out of the several in a series like this, but the others tend to fall flat. The theme of the series sucks us in, but the execution is lacking. The books are convoluted in order to stay within the parameters of the series or, in order to stick with the bible, stock characters or stock premises are utilized. While most of these continuity series are anchored by well-known authors who generally write well, sometimes their books in such series have a phoned-in feel. At other times theirs are the only readable ones of the lot.

And it's not only in the category arena where there are continuity-type series. In 1993 LoveSpell experimented with this in their editor-generated B.L.I.S.S. trilogy. Two of the books in this trilogy earned good grades from AAR; the third earned a resounding F. In 2004, Dorchester, LoveSpell's parent company, published the 2176 quintet. This was not an editor-generated series; instead, these futuristic books blended action adventure with romance, and was the brainchild of author Susan Grant. All five titles in this series earned good grades from our review staff. The difference? Any one of several options: it was born and shepherded by an author. It was a hybrid as opposed to a straight romance. And the action/adventure angle appealed to younger readers; indeed, the Silhouette Bombshell line of action/adventure fiction (not romance) is among the most popular lines published today, most particularly with younger readers.

The Pros of Connected Books

So why are connected books so popular? Well, why do readers still keep reading the Sherlock Holmes books, more than 100 years after the first one came out? Why do fans keep watching popular series, from Star Trek to Lost? We love returning to familiar ground. In romance, connected books have the added advantage of a love story amid that familiar scenery, all within a familial atmosphere. Given that the HEA expectation of a romance is marriage (and probably a family), romance readers enjoy family connections perhaps more than readers of other types of books. Family relationships also help flesh out characters. We know that because of Seth's history, for instance, in Nora Roberts' Chesapeake Bay series, he would do anything to keep his bitch of a birth-mother out of the lives of his "brothers." And, in turn, seeing how those brothers and their families interact with Seth gives us insight into his character as well as the brotherly bond.

One thing Anne loved about the Bridgerton books was that for all their similarities, the plots and pairings vary from book to book. In one of the most clever entries in this year's Purple Prose Parody Contest, Cynthia Marie paid homage to several authors and their series, including Quinn and her Bridgertons. Lord Mamasbuoy, in attending a ball with his mother, is looking for a wife. He spies one girl, only to have his mother respond: "That's the Quinn chit - she thrives on sparking, witty conversation. She has twenty-six strapping brothers and brothers-in-law who will beat you into a pulp if you fail to provide her with a lifetime of sparking, witty conversation. You and I both know you will be lucky to generate three minutes of sparking, witty conversation in the next thirty years. Move on."

On top of that, we can all relate to reading a romance novel we loved, and wishing we could come back to it. How frustrating it is when we find an author we love, only to find out she never wrote a book about the hero's sexy best friend or the heroine's friends or sisters. When Anne read those first historical romances that broke the "bodice ripper" molds, such as Jude Devearaux's The Maiden and her first Julie Garwood historical, she would have been so happy to find out that there were other books like that out there. In fact, there were - The Maiden is part of the Montgomery series, and Julie Garwood's The Lion's Lady quickly had sequels. But it was harder to find out about connected books back then than it is today.

Connected books are a great solution to that "Wow! Give me more books like that!" dilemma. Maybe you can't go home again, but that doesn't mean you can't come back and see the Bridgertons again (and again). If a book is part of a series, then we have a chance to walk down those familiar streets again. We get to find out if the hero's siblings all found love in Regency England, or whether or not the hero's werewolf friends all found women who would accept them despite their, ahem, hirsute issues. If the author sets up her series well, and this means not only introducing a group of characters (either one at a time or en masse) but keeping the focus on the current couple while tantalizing us about brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, pack or coven members, or even deities, readers will want to continue being part of their world.

What are some of the draws of connected books? Like many readers, Dreamwaver likes series because they give her a chance to follow couples and watch them change over time. Also, "some couples make you just want to know what happens next." Laura B. gets "quite attached to characters," and because of that, she likes coming across previously occurring characters when they show up in a new story. Laura B. compares connected books to the effect of reading an epic book, such as one of James Clavell's novels. Another Laura likes reading connected books about a group of characters "because one can get more of a sense of a society or group, and of the interactions and friendships between different people. It makes the experience richer." Eve says, "Some series grab me and entice me to visit the characters again and again." Her favorites are connected books by MaryJanice Davidson, whose authors "nabbed" her and made her "want to go back me for a second and even third visit," and Susan Squires, as well as Teresa Bodwell.

But series books are about more than just hoping Jane and John Couple will show up again. So how does the author keep up the interest? Some authors simply manage to write books that are so great we would buy them even if they were printed on napkins. Some of the wisest authors also add something that keeps you coming back for more - besides the writing and characters and all that. For example, Julia Quinn hooked a lot of readers on the Bridgerton books by raising the question of "Who is Lady Whistledown?" Anne bought several of those books at once when a favorite e-book companies had a sale, and she found it great fun trying to figure out if she was right, and even at times worrying that she might have (gasp!) guessed wrong. The series had more than that going for it, of course, so even when Lady Whistledown's identity was revealed, readers came back to find out who fell in love next.

On top of that, connected books give authors a great way to explore very different sides of a recurring character. Someone who appears as a villain in one book can return in a future book as a hero. Mary Balogh has done this in several of her Regency trads, such as Dancing with Clara and The Christmas Bride. Reformed villains can also be found in Mary Jo Putney's The Rake and Shattered Rainbows and in Carla Kelly's One Good Turn. Regency author Patricia Veryan went one step further when she made recurring villain Roland Otton Mathieson the hero of The Dedicated Villain, the last book of a series. Having a former villain show up as the hero of a new book can be a huge challenge for an author, but at the same time, at least it's more interesting than having the couple of a previous book coming back just to show off how much they wuv each other now and how many kids they have now.

The Cons of Connected Books

It won't come as a surprise to regular visitors of AAR, but not all romance readers want to revisit the same couples over and over again. Or some want to revisit them, but only if the author can keep them interesting. After a while, many fans want to say "Enough already! Write about something new, OK?"

One of the advantages of connected books is also their biggest disadvantage. Just as readers turn to connected books as a way to return to that familiar world, they can also get sick of it if the world becomes too familiar - stagnant rather than fresh. What was once so much fun becomes yesterday's news if the books are too much alike.

Sometimes it's not the series of connected books that fails, it's the individual books within a series. For example, while Dreamwaver likes series books, she is sometimes disappointed in an individual book in a series. For her, the problem isn't that the book was part of a series. She had a problem with the book itself. For example, she liked the first two books in Jayne Anne Krentz's Eclipse Bay series but not the rest. One problem she had with the later books was that with the feud over, the continuing storyline was no longer as interesting.

Then there are series that simply ... peter out...experience that replicative fading effect Laurie mentioned earlier. She noticed years ago, for instance, that in several of the Catherine Coulter trilogies she read, the first book was the best, the second still good but not quite as good, and the third book took a dive. This was noticeable for her in the author's Night and Sherbrooke trilogies - she loathed the third release in each of these trilogies. Coulter then took a break from the Sherbrookes, not returning to them for six years. Many readers believe she should have left well enough alone, and although Laurie agrees that none of these subsequent Sherbrooke stories have been as wonderful as the first, she's liked most of them - and The Courtship, fifth in the series, earned a B+ as compared to the DIK she gave The Sherbrooke Bride (book number one) and the B she graded The Hellion Bride (book number two).

Another author who stayed too long at the party was Stephanie Laurens and the Bar Cynster series. When the author debuted this series in 1988, it created tremendous buzz for its freshness, its joi de vivre, the inventiveness and fun of its love scenes, and that it was the heroes in these books in pursuit of the heroines for marriage, rather than heroes who had commitment issues until the final chapter. This series remained incredibly popular throughout several releases, although after the first few books grumblings about it "getting old" began, and became louder and louder until, four years after Devil's Bride won as Favorite European Historical Romance in our 1989 annual reader poll, Stephanie Laurens had the dubious distinction as the stand-alone "winner" as the "author you gave up on" in our 2003 poll.

Eve says, "Some series go on too long (for me) and I find that the characters feel repetitive, the stories reused. I dislike a story where part way through, the author suddenly jumps to a detailed back story or set-up of another character in order to be able to spin another book off the series." Lynne Connolly also has come across connected books where the connection simply no longer connected. She says, "Sometimes you will 'meet' someone from an earlier book, and not recognize them. It's as though the author has lost the connection she has with them, and is writing them in because it's expected of her." Indeed, authors have written additional books in series they previously ended because readers clamored for it. Elaine Coffman, for instance, acceded to reader demand in writing a seventh book in her MacKinnon series, and Seth's story in Roberts' Chesapeake Bay series also grew out of reader requests. While Laurie loved Seth's book, and Coffman's If You Love Me was her first on the NYT bestseller list, these books may be exceptions. After hearing from enough readers disappointed in after-thoughts, Laurie would counsel any author who asks (although it's fair to say authors aren't lined up for her advice) against writing a sequel to a book or series they already thought complete.

That relates to another problem that pops up sometimes - that is, recurring characters who keep popping up in later books in the series. Many have pointed to some of Catherine Coulter's more recent historical romances as a prime example of this. Laurie finds that it can be incredibly boring to read about recurring characters.  She recalls Ana Leigh's The Mackenzie's: Jake, which earned a D- from her here at AAR.  Though it may not have taken up much of the book overall, most of what she remembers about it six years later is the reunion at its end featuring a ton of characters from earlier on in the series.  She writes in her review: "unless you've read all the earlier books, many of those [re-]introduced in the final pages will bring more of a yawn to your face than a tear to your eye." As for Anne, the epitome of the annoying connected book was the latter part of the futuristic romance The White Sun by Stobie Piel, which she reviewed for AAR. Having long been a fan of futuristic romance, she had no trouble "getting into" the worlds created for them - until that book. It was hard to get into at first, and often, it seemed that once she started to get into the book, characters from previous books would drop on by, throwing her off kilter again. To all that, add the fact that the book was a futuristic with a complicated setting that had been built up in previous stories. It was like waking up in the wee hours when staying in a hotel room, and then accidentally opening the closet while looking for the bathroom.

In fact, if you're new to a series, coming into the middle of a series can be confusing. It shouldn't be, but we suppose that if the setting is exotic, or if there are a lot of previous couples, it's hard for new readers to figure out what the heck is going on. In fact, the idea of connected books as self-contained is controversial.

Should Connected Books Be Self-Contained?

Well? Should they? What do you think? AAR's own policy is that "that a book should stand on its own regardless of whether or not it is part of a series." (Exceptions are made for intricately connected books, such as those that follow one couple.) There are a number of reasons for this policy. The first reason is quite practical - given that so many romances published today are parts of series, there's no way reviewers could keep up-to-date on every series published. Then too, unlike bookaholics, many people who buy books are more casual readers who buy books after browsing. While they may follow certain authors, they generally buy what appeals to them on the spot at the bookstore, grocery store, or airport. These readers may not be aware that the book is part of a series at all...until they become mired down in a "what the f_ck?" narrative that assumes knowledge of people, places, and things they couldn't know unless they'd read earlier in the series. Another reason is the relatively short period of times books remain in print. If someone reads book number three having not read books one and/or two, she may not even be able to get her hands on the earlier book(s) in order to catch herself up. Ever read a book that was part of a series you hadn't previously read and felt utterly lost? Wouldn't it be better to read a book that adequately explained what came before without bogging down in backstory or characters from earlier books whose raison d´etre seems limited to talking, page after page, about reticules or something? Hence, our policy.

Laura B. agrees that connected books should be self-contained but admits that "it takes a lot of skill on the author's part to do that well." She also gets annoyed with a series when you have to find the previous books to figure out what's going on in the one you're reading now. And given the publishing schedules for some authors, this can be a problem even for those following good series. Laurie, for instance, knows that each May there will be a new Southern Vampire book by Charlaine Harris. After the release of the third in this series, she realized that prior to reading each successive release, it would be in her best interest to skim the preceding book to be able to best appreciate all the nuances.

Authors of paranormal and futuristic romances face real challenges when it comes to continuity. No matter how many recurring characters there are, if you open up a book in a Regency historical series, you know some things will always be the same - there will be chaperones, balls, gossips, rules, scandal, and so forth. With paranormal romances, the rules change from series to series. In one series, vampires might die in the sunlight, but in another, they might be able to go out at noon as long as they are wearing sunglasses. Add to that complicated family trees, such as those in Christine Feehan's Carpathian books, and you have a potential for confusion. The author has to try to explain everything for new readers without boring the veterans. Lynne Connolly says, "There's a temptation to make the world more and more complicated with each book so that, although the story is a stand alone, the world is so complex, new readers would be lost. Sherrilyn Kenyon may be gettting that way with her Dark Hunter books." The answer, Connolly believes, "is to keep it as simple as possible, so that the 'rules' are easily picked up, but this can be difficult, especially in futuristics."

As for Kenyon's Dark Hunters, the author is at least aware of the problem and trying to help readers find their way. In the author forward to her most recent book in the series, Sins of the Night, Kenyon instructs readers that a short story - previously only available on her website but now found at the back of Sins of the Night - should be read as the second entry in the series.

Glomming Connected Books

Glomming is as much a part of the world of romance readers as connected books. When the two forces combine, look out! You could become like Anne - buying connected books because you just know you're going to like this series, even if you have only glanced at the first book. After all, a series about a club of Regency spy vampires with werewolf valets was just what she was looking for! This is why she often refers to her "TBR apartment."

Then there are readers who love series but refuse to read a single volume until they have purchased all the books in that series. With the way some of these Regency lords multiple, these readers are going to have a long wait in many cases, and the sales staff at their local bookstores are going to know them by name.

If Anne's living in a TBR apartment, Laurie's living in a TBR house. Though she has since learned her lesson that GWHR (glomming without having read) can be disastrous, early in her romance reading career she heard how great Bertrice Small's Skye O'Malley series was. Though most of the titles were out of print, she searched high and low, throughout the country (this was before online UBS's, at a time when readers like her maintained a list phone numbers/email addresses for a number of brick-and-mortar UBS's), scaring up each title at great expense - most of the volumes were trade sized - only to discover, after eventually reading two other books by the author, that she couldn't stand Small's writing! Laurie's a slow learner, though...she had to go through a similar experience with a couple of other authors to abandon the GWHR practice, and she still falls back into her old habits when she's GWHR a particular series if she's previously read and enjoyed that series' author.

On the other hand, she fondly recalls falling in love with Nora Roberts' MacGregor series. During the summer of 1997 she was assigned to review The MacGregor Brides, an anthology of next-generation stories about the MacGregor family. She adored the book, so much so that she contacted Roberts' then-editor at Silhouette for copies of the original MacGregor series to "help prepare" for an interview with the author. Copies of the books were unavailable, but photocopies in manuscript form of the original five releases were immediately sent and devoured in a matter of days. By now a huge fan of Daniel MacGregor, the patriarch of the clan, Laurie soon realized that category romances weren't as "ridiculous" as she'd assumed from the few bad - and only - ones she'd read. A couple of months later she read Seaswept, which was the start of a long-standing glom of Nora Roberts. And when the MacGregor series was re-issued, Laurie was first in line at the bookstore.

While both the Skye O'Malley and MacGregor series were out of print because they'd been released many years before, one of Laurie's biggest frustrations as a romance reader was already mentioned - the relatively short amount of time many romances are in print. This is less of a problem now than it once was; even though, with category romances and romances by mid-list authors difficult to find in brick-and-mortar retail outlets quite soon after their release dates, the age of on-line bookstores and things like bookstorejunkies have changed the landscape. If one is savvy online and connected into the online romance community, or even simply aware of Amazon and eBay, finding books to fill out a backlist glom no longer requires contacting - by phone or email - UBS's around the country. Those shopping at brick-and-mortar stores may actually find it more difficult to backlist glom all but the most best-selling authors, though, because shelf space in grocery stores, discount chains, and even bookstores seems to shrink every year. But for those of us who shop a lot online, finally getting your hands on that hard-to-find book may not be quite as satisfying as it once was...yet it can still feel as good as discovering that Kenneth Cole handbag at Marshall's when a few months before you saw it retail for three times the price. For some of us, Laurie included, the thrill of the chase, while frustrating, is also exciting.

As it is, romance readers are already used to buying lots and lots of books, based on author name, favorite plotlines, and so forth. (Don't get Anne started on her last trad Regency glom, she still bear the scars.) We are more savvy than the typical reader, often knowing the release dates of the books we're looking for. Throw connected books into that mix, and you have yet another excuse for a shopping trip. Connected books are yet another enticement to us - glomming as a non-contact sport. As if we needed another reason to buy more books! As Laura says, "Trouble is, if you pick up one of a series, and you like it, you feel compelled to buy the rest of the series. So it's obviously a good marketing ploy, as well as giving the author more scope to create a 'world'."

That's true, connected books can be a way for authors to explore a familiar world (and familiar couples) again and again, but they can also be marketing gimmicks. Still, as long as favorite authors write connected books about people we actually want to meet again, we'll be in line for the next one. Someday, though, the police may find one of us sprawled on the floor, covered with a mountain of books, with "Stop me before I glom again" scrawled in lipstick on the bathroom mirrors. In fact, that sounds like it would make a good plot for an In Death book...

Time to post to the Message Board

Because we chose one topic as the focus for this entire column, we've not created a list of particular questions for you to consider. Instead we would ask that you think about connected books you have read - or not - and why you liked them (or didn't). Laurie and Anne are not romance novel historians, so also discuss, if you can, the history of the connected romance in historicals, category titles, and single title contemporaries. Finally, if you'd care to go into some of the extreme lengths you've gone to in order to glom a backlist or series, feel free!

 

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books, Anne Marble, & Robin Uncapher

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