February 20, 2006 - Issue #216

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

We do a number of yearly columns at this time of the year, including Robin's annual Buried Treasures column, which kicks off our annual reader poll. Blythe Barnhill, AAR's managing editor, is also responsible for an annual column, one in which she reports on staff's choice for the Best Romance of the year just past. Last year three of us thought Mary Balogh's Slightly Dangerous was the best and four among us chose Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me. Contrast 2004's reading year with 2003's when six among us couldn't even pinpoint a favorite at all! Was our 2005 reading year more like 2004 or 2003? Read on and see.

Another annual event at AAR is our Isn't It Romantic? Contest, now in its ninth year. I received a number of truly wonderful submissions this year and had a most difficult choice in deciding which story touched me most of all. I'll bring you that story in this column as well.

Finally, we add something into the mix for one time only - the results in our recent user survey. We're extremely gratified that as many of you responded as did, and have compiled the results and worked out some upgrades/fixes in the works as a result of the survey. We'll end the column on that note.

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Reviewer's Choice (by Blythe Barnhill)

I’ve been writing this column for several years now, and during that time we’ve seen a lot of changes at AAR. Most of them have been staffing changes, but a lot of us have had our taste change gradually too. Though there are many who have trouble zeroing in on just one romance to choose as a favorite, some, like Rachel, have grown a little tired with romance but are energized by other sub-genres like YA and Inspirational Fiction. Others, like Leigh, simply sat out the vote because no one book stood out as truly exciting - Leigh's favorite book read in 2005 was actually a 2006 release. ATBF columnist Anne Marble didn’t really have a romance pick for last year, but she did make some interesting discoveries along the way:

“As usual, I bought a lot, started some, and never got around to reading everything I wanted. And the new romances I finished were generally just OK. Still, I did manage to really enjoy Wen Spencer's Tinker, a fantasy novel with romantic elements. But that was a 2003 book. (Late 2003, if it makes a difference.) However, when I was in England, I *did* rediscover romantic short stories in magazines. On one of my first days there, I stopped at a small newsstand near my hotel and ended up buying a lot of British women's weekly magazines (and a couple of monthlies). Most of these magazines have at least one short story per issue, often a romantic story. I became addicted to these stories. So addicted that when I got home, I got a subscription to my favorite of the monthly short story magazines (Take a Break's Fiction Feast).

This year, the vast majority of the books I've read have been YA problem novels. However, most of the ones I read didn't have strong romantic elements at all. These included Speak (an outcast girl pretty much stops speaking to anyone after a rape); Breathing Underwater (teen-aged boy goes through anger management after hitting his girlfriend); Miracle's Boys and Locomotion (both about boys coping with the death of a mother); Counterfeit Son (about a boy who was kept for years by a child molester); and Cut (about a girl suffering from self-mutilation). Wheeeee.”

Though our participation is lower than in years past, we still came out with a definitive winner, chosen by four staff members as a favorite and seconded by others as an honorable mention. Interestingly enough, it was an unusually good year for historicals (at least within our poll), with six different books receiving the top nod from a staff member, including the winner. Only one alternate reality and one series romance were chosen, and for the first time ever, no traditional Regencies made the cut.

Senior Editor Ellen Micheletti made the series pick, choosing With Child by Janice Kay Johnson. As a longtime reader of series romance (and romance in general), Ellen believes quality has suffered in recent years. With Child reaffirmed her faith in the sub genre:

“My choice is Janice Kay Johnson's Superromance title, With Child.  My experiences with series romances were not very good in 2005, but this book shows how wonderful they can be.  It had a story that was interesting and plausible, the characters grew over the course of the book and the love story was so sweet and tender.  Some of my favorite romances ever are series romances, and I was wondering if I'd ever read another one as good as some of my old favorites by Ruth Wind, Kathleen Korbel, Paula Detmer Riggs and Justine Davis. This one is every bit as good.  I liked it so much, I went out and bought several copies.”

Jane Jorgenson chose debuting author Elizabeth Vaughan’s Warprize, a fantasy/medieval romance, as her favorite. She had this to say about her choice:

“When I look at my reading year and the books I loved, this one kept popping up. Though not a perfect work it is one I keep by the bed and re-read when I'm looking for that certain feeling.  The fully-realized world that is the setting worked perfectly, the heroine was good but not sickeningly sweet and the hero the perfect gamma.  I'm eagerly waiting for the sequel due out in April.” Jane gave honorable mention to two other titles: Gail Dayton's The Compass Rose, and Flirting with Danger, Suzanne Enoch's first contemporary romance:

”Honorable mention goes to The Compass Rose.  Though I loved it as much as Warprize, I wouldn't categorize it as a straight romance.  Loved the alternative family that the heroine creates.  Loved the relationship she has with her long-time friend and cohort Torchay.  And I love the fact that there's another book on the way called The Barbed Rose.

"I guess series [of connected books] have become my thing because the other honorable mention I'd give would be to Suzanne Enoch's Flirting with Danger.  Her protagonists are a cross between Nick and Nora and Eve and Roarke.  Need I say more?”

Robin and Laurie both chose Romantic Suspense titles as favorites this year. Robin’s top nod went to Suzanne Brockmann’s Hot Target. Like many readers, Robin found the gay secondary romance to be very touching – more touching, in fact, than the primary romance:

“My pick is Suzanne Brockmann's Hot Target.  It was my only romance DIK for a 2005 book.  What made it stand out for me was the gay secondary romance.  To me that romance was more compelling than the main one.  In a year that I went into a major reading slump, Brockmann's book really stood out.”

Laurie read two terrific 2005 books, but Linda Howard’s To Die For edged out the competition to earn her favorite pick:

"Two 2005-published romances earned DIK status from me, one last January, one this January.  I started off 2005 terribly excited when Linda Howard's To Die For was published.  Had Ellen not reviewed it and mentioned that it was the lightest romantic suspense she'd ever read, I'd never have picked it up.  I love Howard's series titles but because I don't generally read romantic suspense, haven't read her more recent releases.  To Die For was a delight.  I've already talked about it, so won't go into detail here, but my other DIK for 2005 was a book I actually read this January (after I'd already written my own "favorites" column) - Lydia Joyce's The Music of the Night.

"I was very impressed by Joyce's debut romance, The Veil of Night, and had already filled out my annual reader poll ballot with it securely in place in one category.  Then I read The Music of the Night - in one sitting - and not only did that necessitate one change, it also knocked another book out of contention in a second category.  I think Joyce writes grown-up romance with dark characters, vivid settings, and storylines that seem fresh even if they aren't by virtue of her characters.  Few authors are able to torture their heroes and torment their heroines in the same book with such brilliant effect."

"That said, The Music of the Night had one or two tiny flaws in comparison with To Die For, which was pitch-perfect, so my choice for the year, by a hair, is Linda Howard's, featuring one of the best-matched couples I've ever read (on a par with Jessica Trent and Sebastian Ballister from Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels)."

Several of us chose historicals as our favorite book this year, but many of these historicals had a bit of a twist. Whether it was an exotic setting, push-the-envelope sex, or more of a straight fiction bent, most of these were picks were non-tradtional. Sybil did go with more of a traditional pick - A Season to be Sinful, by Jo Goodman. She had this to say about her choice:

A Season to Be Sinful by Jo Goodman is my favorite historical novel of 2005.  Sherry and Lily were a great couple that brought at the best in each other and helped heal the scars life had given them.  I think we are very lucky to still have Jo Goodman writing historicals.”

Her runners up were Dark Lover by J.R. Ward (aka Jessica Bird), and Lucy Monroe's Ready, which appeared on Laurie's list of 2005 best reads. Of Dark Lord Sybil wrote,“The energy and excitement I first felt from the characters in the Black Dagger Brotherhood, I still feel on the fourth read.” She had this to say about Ready: ”It made me sit up and realize I should give more contemporaries a look.  Even though it was more of a romantic suspense novel, which is a sub-genre I generally avoid, I found myself enjoying the read enough to let go of how I see the world is or isn't and lost myself in the world as Lucy Monroe created.

One of our newer reviewers, Ha Nguyen chose Lisa Valdez’s debut book, Passion as her favorite:

“Among the few outstanding books I came across last year (not all of them published in 2005), I adored Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase and To Die For by Linda Howard, but Passion by Lisa Valdez was my favorite. In Passion I've found what I consider a rarity, an excellent historical Romantica Lisa Valdez perfectly captures the allure of forbidden sensuality and maintains the delicious sexual tension throughout the book. But Passion not only is a delightful blend of romantic love story and eroticism, it also offers almost everything I look out for in a romance novel: vivid protagonists going through intense emotions and conflicts, an emotionally satisfying romance, and well-plotted drama. Albeit the conflict was at times over the top, Passion and Mark's internal struggles and reluctant sacrifice moved me, and I even partially sympathized with the selfish "villainess", whose actions were, while far from admirable, still understandable.”

Liz Zink chose Jade Lee’s very unusual Desperate Tigress as her favorite, though her grade for it was not an A but a B+. She also read several enjoyable paranormals:

“This year I've read a ton of  paranormal type romance books, and had a great time with that genre, lots of  excellent choices out there for a change.  It's been hard to make one  distinction, Robin Owens put out another great book, Guardian of Honor, I love  her stuff and I think she's always overlooked.  Lynn Viehl [ aka Jessica Hall] has an excellent series going, as does Kelley Armstrong.  I've read both of them in the  last month or so.  However, that said, the book that probably stuck with me  the longest was Desperate Tigress.  I've never read anything  remotely similar and the historical details were fascinating. It's worth  reading; that's what it boils down to for me.”

Lynn Spencer and I both went with books that had more of an historical fiction bent. Lynn’s favorite - Susan Carroll’s The Courtesan - and her runner-up, Marrying Mozart, both fit under the historical fiction umbrella. She had this to say about her choices:

“I think my favorite for the year would have to be The Courtesan.  I really enjoyed the first book of the trilogy, The Dark Queen, but this one was even better for me.  I love the time period, and the non-English setting of this book.  I also really enjoyed the lead characters and their relationship.  The author does a wonderful job of balancing the romance and the rest of the story in this book and it makes for a really rich reading experience.

"My runner-up would have to be Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell. This book is more historical fiction than straight romance, though there is certainly a romantic element to it.  The characters were very well-drawn here, and I really admired the author's ability to evoke a mood or give the reader a mental picture of a setting with just the right turn of phrase.”

I had a good reading year in general. Memorable books for me included Lydia Joyce’s Veil of Night, a stylishly written book with a gothic flair, Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible, which I enjoyed for its humor and absolutely delicious hero, and Cynthia Sterling’s debut book, What Do You Say to a Naked Elf?. I found the latter charming and funny, though it did kind of seem like I was the only one who loved this book. But my favorite of the year was Diana Gabaldon’s A Breath of Snow and Ashes. Frankly, nothing in the romance arena even came close for me. The fact that this series is still going strong, still so well-written and compelling after all these years amazes me. I didn’t want the book to end, and everything I picked up afterwards paled in comparison.

The single straight contemporary romance in our reviewer poll won the vote of two reviewers – which also makes it the runner-up. Both Rachel Potter and Lea Hensley chose Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Match Me if You Can. For Rachel it was the best of a somewhat unsatisfactory field. She didn’t have any true romance DIKs for the year, but SEP's came the closest. For Lea, it was more of an out and out winner:

”I was predisposed to like Match Me because of its author but this book perfectly fit my definition of a great contemporary romance and it was just plain fun reading it.  Multiple layers of subtle humor appeared throughout the book and eccentric Molly was clearly my favorite heroine of 2005.  Her wit played well against Heath's dominant personality.  The significant reappearance of my favorite contemporary couple, the Calebows, from It Had to Be You, and a dynamic secondary couple, Portia and Bodie, added to my delight.”

"My second choice was To Die For. First person probably kept this from being a tie for first place.  Howard is another favorite of mine but her latest books that are heavier on suspense have not been keepers for me.  I was excited to see her place the romance forefront in this one and felt like she had returned to her roots.  Fortunately I was forewarned about Blair's cheerleader perfection prior to reading or I think it would have taken a significant number of pages to become accustomed to such a character.  Wyatt was a vintage Howard hero and I loved him for it.  There were some times of hilarity and I relished the witty dialogue between the leads.

"And I have to give honorable mention to The Music of the Night. Oh - if only there were more romances like this one!  Its gothic nature was a hit for me - I don't see this done well very often.  It has made me search for other gothic novels but none have met the quality of this one yet.  I think this author definitely deserves some sort of award and hope it will show in our annual poll.”

But top honors from our staff belong to (drum roll, please) Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase. Editors Sandy Coleman and Cheryl Sneed made it their choice, as did Pandora’s Box Columnist/Publisher Liaison Linda Hurst and reviewer Jeanne W. Here are Jeannes’ comments:

“My vote for best book of 2005 is Mr. Impossible.  An early release of 2005, it still remained for me the strongest and most appealing romance for 2005.  Delightful, intelligent, hilarious, atypical characters.  An exotic, well-researched setting.  A great, entertaining plot.  Rupert is an adorable doll in every aspect, and I get such a kick that he admires and respects Daphne’s braininess.  One of the most well-crafted romances I have ever read.   A notable runner up is The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie.  Very cleverly set up comedy scenes between two ostensible opposites:  earnest Prudence and irrepressible Gideon.  The first meeting between them with Prudence’s quick-witted lies supported and topped by Gideon’s embellishments is just a hoot.  Anne Gracie's signature humor made this one of my top favorite romances for the year.”

Linda went back over her notes for the year and found that Mr. Impossible was really her favorite. She also enjoyed Terri Brisbin's The Duchess's Next Husband, and a debut novel by Shirley Karr, What An Earl Wants. Later, unable to resist, Linda added just one more pick - Something About Emmaline by Elizabeth Boyle.

Cheryl had this to say about her choice, and added a runner-up as well:

"Mr. Impossible had a terrific, unusual setting with characters recognizable as 'real' people. I adored that Rupert loved Daphne's 'gigantic brain,' there was a laugh-out-loud line on every page, and it was sexy as all get-out.

"My second favorite of the year was It Happened One Autumn by Lisa Kleypas. Both leads are of the alpha variety - Marcus manifests it through pomposity, Lillian through recklessness - and watching them each learn to defer to the other through love was lots of fun.”

For Sandy, Chase’s book was truly the best of an outstanding field. She had this to say about her favorites (and her terrific reading year in general):

“Unlike some of my fellow reviewers, 2005 was actually a stand-out reading year for me.  Interspersed amongst some truly wretched books and far too many ho-hum ones, I managed to uncover some sparkling gems that reminded me once again that there really is life out there in romance-land.

"I had two especially pleasant surprises in 2005:  New author Jennifer St. Giles and historical romance author Suzanne Enoch's charming contemporary debut.  A friend recommended Mistress of Trevelyan, St. Giles' Gothic romance debut, and I found it fresh, lively, sexy, and smart. When the book's sequel turned up on the list of available books, I grabbed the chance to review His Dark Desires.  Ms. St. Giles has reinvigorated for me the Gothic American romance and I find myself eagerly awaiting her next release. As for Ms. Enoch, I have to  admit that I'm not a big fan of her historical romances, but I kept hearing good buzz about Flirting with Danger and was eager to give it a try.  It turned out to be a very good move - such a good move that I found myself wondering why the author waited so long to try her hand at contemporaries!

"2005 was also the year of Lydia Joyce.  Like a lot of AAR staff and readers alike, I found The Music of the Night to be an incredibly assured, confident, and skilled historical romance.  To call her a talent to watch is truly understating the matter.

"New releases by three of my favorite authors also hit the spot for me in 2005:  Linda Howard, Julia Quinn, and Diana Gabaldon.  With To Die For, a truly delicious confection, Linda Howard proved once again that she is truly one of the most amazingly versatile authors in romance.( I hope she keeps listening to those characters in her head for a long time to come!)  As for Julia Quinn, It's In His Kiss reminded me all over again why so many authors attempt to imitate her sparklingly smart, funny, and stylish romances. (And, despite what they say, they do!)  And Gabaldon.  Oh, my.  The wait for A Breath of Snow and Ashes was a long (and painful) one, but the author hit it out of the park with this compulsively readable story, made even better by the author's shrewd decision to turn her focus back where it should be - on the endlessly fascinating Jamie and Claire.

"I also want to mention a non-romance that really stood out for me:  The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.  Clearly a book of both the author's heart and mind, I found it to be one of the intriguing books I've read in years. It's not perfect - the emotional pay-off the novel so desperately needed just isn't there - but this is a book that richly deserved its bestseller status.  (And am I the only one who can't wait for the movie?)

"Now for my book of the year.  After giving due consideration to all the books I've mentioned, I simply couldn't select anything but Mr. Impossible.  This book was, in a word, perfect.  Hysterically funny, phenomenally sexy, and just . . . well, perfect.  (Did I already say that?) Loretta Chase is one of romance's greatest treasures and I am endlessly delighted that she's back with us after far too long an absence.  To put my affection for Mr. Impossible into perspective, though I very much enjoyed Miss Wonderful, her 2004 release, somehow all the lusty fun Ms. Chase is so famous for simply wasn't there. (And one thing we can all use more of is lusty fun!)  Mr. Impossible was everything I was looking for and more. This, fellow readers, is a perfect (did I already say that?) romance that would make an excellent addition to anyone's Romance Conversion Kit. Irrepressibly charming characters, hysterically funny dialogue, unforgettably tender (and fun!) love scenes, and both a hero and heroine to die for, this one has secured a place in the top five on my personal list of DIKs - and, to be completely honest, it's been more than a little while since a new release cracked that elusive top five!”

By the time this column goes online, voting will have already ended in our annual reader poll. Writing this column has made me think about some great reads that I missed this year, and I hope it has had a similar effect on others. I’m feeling inspired to move some of these picks to the top of my tbr pile – to take a little time to read some books that are clearly the top of the field. Sometimes it seems like we do a lot of complaining throughout the year, whether it’s about formulas that have grown tired, books that we feel should not have been published in the first place, or characters who behave in unrealistic ways that make us grit our teeth. It’s nice to take a moment to simply gush about our favorites. But whether or not they are favorites for you, we hope you’ll let us know what you think about them.  

Isn't It Romantic? Contest (LLB)

This, our ninth annual Isn't It Romantic? Contest, brought with it some of the most touching entries I've ever received, and many were so good that I hope those who submitted them will consider sending them in next year. That said, it's rare that one of these entries actually elicits a crying jag from me, and the winner for 2005, Judye Nazareth, managed it rather easily. Here's Judye's story, in her own words, and if you'd like to see what she's won, click here. Congratulations, Judye...thank you for sharing your story, and your prize is on it's way.

Craig and I have been friends now for 12 years.  We married in April 2001.  We wanted to start a family right away and I found out that I was pregnant in February 2002.  We felt incredibly blessed and lucky. 

We wait eagerly until May when we could met our first child via ultrasound.  As it was our first child, we were not concerned by how long the ultrasound tech was taking and how many pictures were being captured.  She told us that we were having a little boy.  We were ecstatic.  As we were leaving, she asked if we wanted to wait to see the doctor.  I said no, as I had an appointment early that Monday morning.  This was Friday.

We told everyone that we knew.  That weekend, we were walking on air, thinking that we were the luckiest people on Earth.

Unfortunately that was to be proven wrong come Monday morning.  The doctor told me that our perfect son was not perfect.  He had a severe birth defect called Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia which has less than a 50/50 success.  It was confirmed by a high risk specialist that Friday and we were given a decision after the amnio ruled out any chromosomal abnormalities.  We could continue with the pregnancy and all the risks for the both of us or terminate.

My dear sweet man told me that it was up to me.  That he would support me in any decision that I made.  If I chose to terminate the pregnancy, we would just tell everyone that the baby had died.  End of story and woe to those that pressed me on it.  Or we could face this together.

And so my husband of only a year and I decided to play the hand of cards that we had been dealt and continue this to the end.  That perhaps our little boy would beat the odds and things would be okay in the end.

Well, things went bad at 28 weeks.  I ended up on bed rest in the hospital for 2 1/2 weeks  Developed a potentially life threatening pulmonary edema (Thanks ER for giving me an idea of what could have happened).  That dear sweet man that I married spent every day with me.  Spent nights on the pull out couch next to me, holding my hand as I slept.  And waited on me hand and foot when they spent me home on strict bed rest.

My water broke at 32 weeks and Craig rushed me to the hospital.  After five hours of painful labor, our baby was in distress and I was rushed for an emergency C-section.  Alexander Joseph was born at 12:01 pm, September 1st.  He was rushed to the NICU.  My husband was brought up an hour later to see him, all hooked up to tubes and a vent.  With a card on his table that said "Baby N"  My husband told the doctors that our baby had a name and that he wanted it written on his card.

Five hours later, I was wheeled into a room after my surgery to be met by the neonatalogist to tell us that they could not stabilize our little man and that we needed to say goodbye.  A nurse ran up to me to ask if I wanted her to find a priest to baptize my son.  The priest met us in the NICU where the staff had cleared the doctors meeting room for us as I could not sit up yet.  We held our son as he left this world for another better place where babies don't feel pain.

One night while still in the hospital recovering from the surgery, my husband told me that he would rather have faced this with me, than anyone else.

My husband spent every night for the next two weeks sleeping holding my hand so I did not feel alone.  And when I healed, he pushed me out of the house to walk, to go shopping.  To avoid staying in the house hiding from the world.  I hated that at the time but as the depression lifted a bit, I understood his reasons.

As my husband said, I could not have imagined ever facing what we faced without each other.  He was my anchor in a whirlwind of pain and fear.

We have gone on to have two beautiful little girls, Tessa Rose and Amanda Grace.  We have faced the worse that a couple could ever face together and come out the stronger for it.  And love each more for it as well.

Our Recent User Survey (Laurie Likes Books)

Last month we conducted a site-wide user survey to gauge how we're doing in meeting the needs of our users. We assumed going into this that most of you who participated in the survey like the site and use it somewhat regular - or have at some point. Still, we are extremely gratified to learn how well we're doing overall. Nearly three-quarters of you who visit AAR visit once a day or more. We are the favorite web site for three out of four of you, and 97% of you grade us A or B.

How often do you visit AAR?
More than twice a day
15%
Once a week
10%
Twice a day
11%
Once every two weeks
6%
Once a day
33%
Once every month
4%
Twice a week
21%
This is my first visit
<1%
Your grade for us
A
65% 
 B
32% 
3% 
0% 
0% 
How does AAR compare to other romance novel web sites?
My Favorite
74%
Better than Most
22%
Average
5%
Worse than Most
0%
Don't Like It at All
0%

We've made a great many changes at AAR since the end of 2004, which is what prompted us to conduct this survey to begin with. Not only did we change the site's design, we instituted a database to handle our 5,500+ (and growing) reviews. More than 80% of you found our new navigation system very satisfactory or satisfactory...only 11% are dissatisfied. As to the site's new look, nearly 80% like it to some degree - fewer than ten percent dislike it.

How Satisfied Are You? Very Satisfied Neutral Somewhat Dissatisfied Very Dissatisfied
Ease of Navigation 36% 45% 9% 9% 2%
Visual Appeal 35% 42% 16% 6% 2%

How User-Friendly Is AAR?
Extremely
23%
Very
47%
Okay
19%
Requires a bit of work
9%
Frustrating
3%
Level of Comfort Participating?
Like Home
14%
Usually Comfortable
41%
Neutral
30%
Not Always Comfortable
7%
I'm Afraid To Post
9%


Trying to measure user-friendliness overall was a little tougher to do, and the results reflect that. Because, for instance, 70% of you find AAR very or extremely user-friendly and more than 50% of you consider AAR like home or are usually comfortable in participating. But what is the cause of the discomfort for the rest of you? Does it arise from the guidelines we ask that you follow in terms of what types of posts belong on each of our boards, or is there a fear of flaming?

One feature we knew we had to eliminate with the institution of our reviews database is sorely missed by many of you, as evidenced in the user comments accompanying the survey. That feature, which began to disappear at the end of 2004 as the transfer process of reviews from archives to database began, was my looking up titles in series of connected books, and adding them and any associated links to other reviews at the site. This special feature at AAR was useful indeed, but a huge eater of time...indeed, updating a group of books sometimes took a half hour of my time. Given the sheer number of books that are parts of series, we came up with what we felt was a useable fix: to include an "is this book part of a series?" field in the database and the addition of the mini-search module you see on the bottom of each review that allows you to search for other books by author, thereby giving you critical information to determine connected books on your own.

A couple of things will not change as a result of the survey, and the connected books listing and their links are one of them. The other is our continual need to keep content on each of our message boards separate. We've attempted to hone and clarify over time the reason why this is necessary, as well as to explain as coherently as possible what posts belong on each of our boards, yet it's still troublesome for many of you. But because of the differing functionalities of each board, this too will not change. Unlike other sites, three of our boards are "working" boards that provide material for us to write about, and unless we change our function and don't mine those boards for topics of interest, our requirements will not change.

That said, however, we have already begun the process to institute many changes at AAR. Some are changes that will be made in the long term while others have already begun. Long-term changes are long-term because of their cost, and we're as much a pay-as-you-go operation as we can feasibly be.

We realize that in order to provide a variety of content, not every feature will appeal to every reader. And every feature at AAR has its fan base. 97% of you grade our original content A or B in terms of quality and relevance, 94% grade us A or B on trust-worthiness, and 93% of you grade the reliability of our content A or B. In fact, when grading any of the aspects of our original content, A's outweighed the B's by as much as three to one.

Please Grade AAR's Original Content A B C D F
Quality
75
22
3
<1
0
Relevance
68
28
3
<1
0
Timeliness
46
41
11
<1
<1
Variety
53
39
5
2
<1
Reliability
63
30
7
<1
0
Trust-Worthiness
65
29
6
<1
0
Readabilty
70
22
7
2
0
Ability to provoke thought/discussion
59
33
7
<1
0
Entertainment
68
27
4
<1
<1

In asking you to grade each of our main features, as well their usefulness, that inability to satisfy all readers in all things became apparent. With the exception of our reviews, our self-created content earned higher grades overall than it earned in usefulness. In other words, while roughly 80% of you enjoy At the Back Fence, a somewhat lower percentage of you find it as useful. As for our reviews, you all want more of them, and we're trying, but it's difficult for some on our review staff, for a variety of reasons, to write as many reviews as we would all like them to write. As such, we ask any of you who believe you would make a good AAR reviewer to fill out our online form so we our editorial staff can review your sample reviews and possibly offer you a slot with us.

Even though all of us want to see more reviews on AAR, I am not interested in AAR being only a review site. It is our variety, our interactiveness, and our ability to provoke thoughtful discussions that got us this far, and we will continue to offer this variety. In order to improve in some areas, we are focusing our changes on these areas:

Reviews/Reviews database:
  • Attempt to increase the number of reviews posted online, and to increase their timeliness. For this we ask that you consider joining us as a reviewer.
  • To make our reviews database even more user-friendly than it already is, we have asked for cost estimates from the database's builder for these changes:
    • The ability to search by first and last name of author.
    • The ability to search on multiple criterion, allowing a reader, for instance, to look for all B+ Contemporaries or all Westerns with a Warm rating.
    • Though we already offer many different browseable fields, you would like to browse by title.
    • The ability to sort results pages differently. Right now results other than new reviews only are in reverse chronological order, but if a set could be sorted in author alpha order, you would like that.

Pandora's Box:

  • Eliminating reviews for books discussed in Pandora's Box, which feeds into...
  • Adding grades to Pandora's Box columns, which will require another change in our database; we've already asked the database's creator how much that might cost.
  • Providing less idiosyncratic and more factual information on PB columns, a change we put in place a while ago, and made even more noticeable (we hope) with our most recent column - on Brenda Joyce's new book.
  • Increasing the energy level of PB columns by bringing in a different reviewer each month to sit in with Linda, who will remain constant. With all of Blythe's other responsibilities at the site, deciding who should sit this one out was easy, although her insights will be sorely missed.

At the Back Fence:

  • Shorten the columns. We know that many of our columns are too long, so we will be shortening them after the results column for our annual reader poll goes online in two weeks.
  • In order to facilitate these shorter columns, we plan to post more frequently. You can expect a shorter column each and every Monday, with Anne, Robin, and me going round-robin. The fourth week of the month we would like to open up to you; any ATBF columnist will work with you if you've got a topic you'd like to share with our readers.

Message Boards:

  • While we must continue to separate each board, we have requested improvements from our main host so that, even though Reader to Reader will remain hosted internally, the other four boards hosted externally will share some of RTR's most useful functions, including the ability to read all posts in a thread from all posts in a thread.

We've begun the process in each of these areas, but it's difficult to say when these database improvements will be made; most likely they will occur in a piecemeal fashion. It took many years to raise the seed money to have the database built to begin with, and it is only recently that I was able to repay myself for the remainder.

While it was personally difficult to hear some of your criticisms and complaints, I, along with my AAR colleagues, are committed to being the best romance novel web site and where we can, we will try to respond to the problems you identified.  

Time To Post to the At the Back Fence Message Board:

Now that we've closed our annual reader poll, we know you all want to talk about your favorite romances, so we're not going to stop you now! We can't see ourselves asking, "What did you think about my choice as best romance of the year?" so there will be no individual questions this time around - just an open forum for you to start talking about the books presented in the column and others you loved from 2005.

We understand there will be a lack of concensus regarding some of our reviewers' choices. If any of the titles presented in this column were of books you didn't care for, here's where you can talk about that. We didn't add a new category in this year's readers poll because it's already lengthy and complex, but wonder whether or not we should add this one next year: Over which book did you most disagree with AAR? We ask this even though we asked the very same question last year, but the answer was not definitive enough for us to decide at that time.

The next issue of At the Back Fence will present the winners/losers in this year's annual readers poll. It will include, as always, analysis of the biggest winners/losers and comments from some/most of the winningest authors. You'll be free at that point to share why you agree or disagree with the results.

In the meantime, though, feel free to talk about the books you loved from last year; you'll probably convince someone to try a book they hadn't considered; in fact, if reading this column does that for you, we're thrilled.

 

Blythe Barnhill and Laurie Gold, with feedback from AAR staff

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

 

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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