March 6, 2006 - Issue #217

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

It's hard to believe we've been around long enough to have conducted an annual reader poll for ten years now! Say what you will about reading in 2005, from my perspective this particular year's poll was the most interesting to conduct.

Before continuing further, I'd like to extend congratulations and continued success to all the winners in the 2006 poll, and to thank the many readers who submitted ballots. For the second year in a row, I tallied the votes, and to liven things up this time, decided that in-between the two sets of interim results, I'd post daily updates. My hope was that by giving the opportunity to you to see into the process more or less (sans ballot box stuffing...more on that later), you would get as caught up in the excitement of the voting fluidity as I was. But because I didn't want to turn this into a horse race, that look into the process was of limited duration - two weeks - and did not include the final two weeks of voting.

I'm happy to announce that we achieved the highest level of voting ever this year. Had all the ballots cast been valid, I'd be able to inform you that this year's results were phenomenal. Close to 30% more ballots were cast, but a great many were invalid. For some reason, some authors and/or their friends/families/fans believe that winning in our modest poll is of the utmost importance. When I discounted all invalid ballots, we still ended up with an increase of roughly 15% more valid ballots this year than last year - in itself a big increase - but a frustrating one given how many I was forced to discard.

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Because there were so many more bogus ballots this year, some initially got past my radar, although I was later able to discount their effect. Still, two titles made it onto the final list of interim results that perhaps should not have been there. Because I have no desire to embarrass any author or her readers, I won't name names, although perhaps the most interesting ballot box stuffing came in the way of one author's fans who essentially voted a "straight ticket" for her book. These ballots accounted for a whopping five percent of the total ballots received, and on one, the author and her book - and only the author and her book - were voted for in fourteen different categories. But this particular author apparently wrote a fine book in 2005 and it legitimately won or earned honorable mention in at least one category.

And then there were those ballots that might have escaped my eye had not the same two people with very foreign-sounding names cast them multiple times. Checking through those I discovered a related set of ballots sent in by authors, family, friends, and probably readers as well, for a group of authors who share a blog. Several of these authors had apparently written fairly good books in 2005, but when numerous ballots came in with just about only these seven authors' books in a variety of categories - including the same book voted for in a "wrong" category (there's a reason we provide an explanation of what series/category fiction is, and if multiple ballots are received and each of them features the title of the same series of connected books instead - it does set up a red flag for me) - I was forced to discard several.

As a result of all the scrutiny given to each and every ballot this year, I can say without hesitation that these results are valid, which should give the winning authors an even stronger sense of pride in their showing. I may not have read all the books that won, but after watching results change on a daily and even hourly basis, I feel as though I know all of them intimately. In two categories, though, watching the results produced a great deal of anxiety. Until the very last day it looked as though we would not be able to award any book in the Series/Category Fiction category - or the Short Story category - because not enough votes were cast for any one particular book or story to meet a threshold I realized was important to set. And really, it wasn't a high threshold at all, given past history and the number of votes cast. In the end I was able to relax as one of these categories had at least one title surpassing that threshold, but for the first time, we are not actually awarding a win in the other, although we will be giving one title honorable mention.

We've conducted this poll in the same fashion since its inception. We do not present a slate of candidates for readers to vote upon nor do we vet nominees in any way. Because we like to be as organic as possible at AAR, we allow readers to speak for themselves. This has created some interesting results; a couple of years ago, for instance, two non-genre romances earned honorable mentions. This year one book won in an unexpected category and another earned honorable mention in a category that has me entirely confused. And I say that knowing that my own choice in two categories was the YA novel Girls in Pants.

To see the full listing of awards, click here via jump link and a new window will open in your browser, allowing you to toggle back and forth between this column and the awards themselves.

Last year, because our awards had reached such maturity and become important both AAR and off it, we created actual cyber awards for winners to place on their own web sites. To the left is the 2006 version of our award, with the same tanzanite "statuette" we "handed out" last year. (Winners, click here for details on installing the award on your site or blog.)

The world of romance looks quite different than the world of romance in 1996. Each year I use this column to analyze results somewhat differently, and this year will be doing so again. It's important to see where we've been and where we are as it may give us hints as to where we are headed. Before we get into any multi-year analysis, though, let's take a look at this year's multiple winners, and then at the individual award winners. As always there are books that captured the imagination of readers in a big way. I know there was a lot of grumbling over slim pickings last year, but I know that my own favorites were certain "as good" as my favorites in previous years. In no way do I want to diminish any of the books that won, either in individual categories or multiple categories. Perhaps those books should be lauded all the more for stirring up such excitement in what many consider to have been a lackluster reading year.

Multiple Award Winners

Loretta Chase & Mr. Impossible

Mr. Impossible is set in Egypt, for which we offer no voting category. Given, though, that it "stars" English characters during the 1820s, it comes as no surprise that readers voted for it in the European Historical category

Five wins (all stand-alones)
Two honorable mention
Best Romance (s-a)
Best Hero (s-a)
Best Couple (s-a)
Best Cabin/Road Romance (s-a)
Best Eur Hist (s-a)
Hon Mention: Glommed
Hon Mention: Best Heroine
Anne Stuart & Black Ice Three wins (one s-a, one tie) Most Tortured Hero (s-a)
Most Glommed (tie)
Best Romantic Suspense
Susan E. Phillips & Match Me if You Can Two wins (one s-a) Favorite Funny
Best Contemporary (s-a)
Diana Gabaldon & A Breath of Snow & Ashes Two wins (one tie) Most Hanky Read (tie)
Best Amer Hist/Frontier
Lisa Valdez & Passion Three wins (two s-a)
Two honorable mentions
Two negative wins (one tie/one s/a)
Most Luscious Love Story (s-a)
Guiltiest Pleasure Read (s-a)
Best Debut Author
Hon Mention - Hanky
Hon Mention - Buried Treasure
Worst Romance (tie)
Most Purple Prose (s-a)
Linda Howard: To Die For
  Killing Time
One win
Four honorable mentions
One negative win (s-a)
One dishon mention (tie)
Best Heroine
Hon Mention - Funny
Hon Mention - Strong Heroine
Hon Mention - Rom Susp
Hon Mention - Chick Lit/Wom. Fict.
Most Annoying Lead Character
Dishon Mention - Disappointing Read
Lydia Joyce & The Music of the Night One win
One honorable mention
Best Buried Treasure
Hon. Mention: Debut Author

Individual Award Winners
Mary Balogh Most Glommed (tie)  
Diane Gaston & The Mysterious Miss M Best Series Novel (tie)  
Janice Kay Johnson & With Child Best Series Novel (tie)  
Julie Kenner & The Givenchy Code Best Chick Lit/Wom. Fict.  
Lisa Kleypas & It Happened One Autumn Best Villain (s-a) Most Disappointing Read
Kinley MacGregor & Return of the Warrior Best Medieval/Renaissance (s-a)  
Janet Mullaney & Dedication Best trad Regency (s-a)  
Karen Ranney & Till Next We Meet Most Hanky Read  
J.D. Robb & Survivor In Death Strongest Heroine Authors Others Love/You Don't (s-a)
J.R. Ward & Dark Lover Best Alt Reality/Paranormal (s-a)  

Each year I try to contact all the winners in our poll and ask questions or simply ask for their comments on winning. This year I was able to email most winners, and if they were able to respond, I've included their comments below.

Loretta Chase

2006's biggest winner - with five wins and two honorable mentions - is Loretta Chase, whose Mr. Impossible captivated and delighted readers since its release a year ago. When informed of her showing, the author commented that because her own book was up against so many wonderful books by some of her favorite authors, she "didn't see how it could get much beyond being nominated, given the competition - and I was happy simply that it appeared in so many categories. So I am elated to an extreme degree at having won."

Given the long-lasting impact of Chase's 1995 Lord of Scoundrels, which was our readers' favorite romance in both 2000 and 2004, I asked the author whether or not Mr. Impossible could have that type of longevity. She prefaced her response by stating that she "never expected LOS to have the longevity it's had," adding, "But since one of my long-term goals is immortality (hey, a girl can dream), ten-plus years is a good start. If Mr. Impossible wins a response from readers even remotely like that, it would certainly justify all those hours of research in the bowels of various libraries." Chase realizes that readers are looking less for research than romance, but for her its a necessity as it brings "to life the world and people of the story. In this case, I took on a bigger job than usual. Not that I'm complaining. I love getting old book crumblies all over my hands, face, and clothes."

I also asked the author to talk about her "lost years," those years between The Last Hellion and Miss Wonderful, when she was not published. Although she indicates that part of her life is rather blurred by now, she experienced burnout after several unhappy personal and professional events. Chase wasn't sure whether she had a home in romance anymore, and "decided to abandon the field entirely, along with the manuscript I couldn't finish. I did other kinds of writing, primarily corporate freelance, and worked on a paranormal story. But despite several revisions, that story never really jelled properly." But after the independence of writing novels, she "found dealing with clients a bit...trying, [and] in time, the years away from romance came to feel like a vacation rather than retirement," and by 2001 she was ready to try again. The author had an editor and agent who knew her work and were, "very enthusiastic and supportive."

Chase's upcoming Lord Perfect is one she loves dearly, although it was not supposed to have followed Miss Wonderful and Mr. Impossible. She writes, "The third Carsington brothers book was supposed to be about the youngest son. But Benedict, the eldest, haunted me. I had started the series assuming that the two eldest sons were happily married," but realized early on that Benedict's marriage was a failure. She adds, "Then he appeared at the end of Mr. Impossible, widowed, and instantly came intensely alive in my mind. When a character presents himself so powerfully to the imagination, his is the story that needs to be written, no matter what one has planned. The result was another road book - completely different from Mr. Impossible, but also a great joy to write." (editor's note: as I finalized this column I finalized Blythe's DIK review of Lord Perfect...Loretta Chase has now earned DIK status six times at AAR.)

Before signing off with Chase, I asked her about receiving honorable mention to Anne Stuart and Mary Balogh in the Most Glommed category. She responded, "These are two distinctive voices, authors whom I admire greatly. I'm honored to be mentioned anywhere in their vicinity."

Anne Stuart

One of 2006's biggest winners is Anne Stuart and her May romantic suspense novel Black Ice, which I began to rave about in April of last year. Throughout the remainder of the year, and throughout January and February of this year, somebody has asked to see the epilogue that Stuart never wrote but summarized specifically for our readers upon request. Though I wondered whether Bastien was perhaps too much a hero on the edge for most readers to appreciate; my fears were unwarranted. Not only was he your choice for Most Tormented Hero, the book was your choice for Best Romantic Suspense, and Anne Stuart tied as the author most glommed in our poll.

When I interviewed Stuart almost a decade ago, she mentioned that it's been difficult to find the right publisher. Today she says that she's "finally got a publisher who gets me and knows how to publish me. I'm an acquired taste (most Amazon reviews of my books start out with 'this isn't for everyone but ...' ). Mira's been trying hard to get it right and I think they finally did, and they've got great ideas and great plans. So I may have finally found the perfect fit. I hope so, since I just signed for three more books."

Although Stuart deems Black Ice the book of her heart and she wrote it in record time, she is nonetheless surprised by all the requests for its epilogue because she's written "many books I've adored that just disappear." She "knew it was something special, but sometimes no one else realizes it, so it was especially wonderful to get all the positive reaction to it." One more thing about the epilogue...Stuart writes that although she's never done so before, Chloe and Bastien appear in her next book and "wouldn't take no for an answer...they're living pretty much as I expected they would." About Bastien himself, the author says, "Thank you, thank you, for finding Bastien as mesmerizing as I did! I didn't hold back when I wrote him, and some people think I go too far, but it thrills me that so many other people loved him too."

Because the author is so well-known for her "terse endings," it's not only ironic that readers clamored for a Black Ice epilogue, it's doubly so because our reviewer of Stuart's new historical found the epilogue "a bit trite and overly sweet." When I asked Stuart if she's damned either way, she responded that she loves the abrupt endings, her favorite being the "ending in Nightfall where, after all sorts of desperate traumas and blood and death and sex, the hero, who's disappeared, suddenly shows up in the heroine's apartment, and she asks why are you here?' and he says 'for you' and then the last line is, 'and that was enough.' Or something like that. Nice and tight and done." She added, "I hate kissy smoochy oh my darling endings in books - if they're finished I like them finished cleanly. However, in historicals and series romances I quite often like an epilogue, to show them fecund and happy after a few years (most of my epilogues have way too many off-spring - Jo Beverley is always chiding me for it). So yeah, maybe it's cheesy and sappy but some cheesy, sappy things are just lovely and I adore the epilogue, corn and all.

Given Anne Stuart's longevity as a romance novelist, I asked her to describe the market for her writing today as opposed to ten or fifteen years ago. She answered:

"Good lord, yes, I've been around a long time. My first book, a gothic, came out 32 years ago when I was twenty-five. And the industry goes through cycles and you just have to ride them out. Sometimes things keep coming back, like paranormal and historical romances (on the outs right now) and some things stay lost forever (regencies and gothics) but you can always find something new to write.

"The market is tighter than it ever was, according to those who know these things, and many wonderful, long-time authors aren't getting new contracts, which is terrifying. We're going through a shakedown of seismic proportions, and it's painful and scary.

"There are any number of changes - as I said, historicals are in the toilet and Regencies are pretty much gone. Ten years ago you couldn't sell a vampire book - now everyone wants them. We've got erotica now, which I find politically empowering but a little tiresome (I'm a woman of extremes - I either like romance or porn - no middle ground for me).

"Oddly enough, while I've never written an actual vampire, many of my heroes are emotional vampires, lost and looking for the right soul-mate but willing to drain their blood to get them. Maybe that's why people seem more willing to open up to my dark books where in the past they've been wary."

Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Years ago Susan Elizabeth Phillips promised that she would stay true to contemporary romance and wouldn't become a romantic suspense or suspense author. She's kept that promise, and was rewarded again for Match Me If You Can, a romance that revisits the Chicago Stars football team. Though the author has AAR reader awards for books outside this series (in our inaugural year she won big for Kiss an Angel - she also won multiple awards for Lady Be Good), AAR's readers can't get enough of those involved with the Stars, and as she's done in the past, she won both the Favorite Funny and Best Contemporary Romance award. When I informed Phillips about her wins, I also asked her about revisiting the team, as well as her longevity. This is what she had to say:

"Please extend my appreciation and some sloppy kisses to everyone who voted for Match Me If You Can. As for your questions... I never actually 'decide' to revist the Stars. If only I were so organized. I'd been wanting to write about a matchmaker for a long time, but didn't have a hero. I wanted someone very high powered and, somehow or another, I started thinking about a sports agent. (Jerry Maguire is one of my favorite movies.) That took me right back to the Stars. My next book is about Dean Robilard, the Southern California glamour boy we meet in Match Me. In his story, he's taken over from Kevin Tucker (This Heart of Mine) as the Stars quarterback. I'm finishing that book in the next few months, and he has led me on quite a chase. Readers can check in on my web site for all the details. As for the secret of my longevity...? Just showing up?!"

Lisa Valdez

Lisa Valdez made a big splash this year with her debut romance, Passion, with three wins and two honorable mentions. Readers responded strongly to her book, both positively, but also negatively, as it "earned" two negative awards (it tied for Worst Read and was stand-alone winner for Purple-est Prose). Frankly I'm not certain if purple prose is as negative for most readers as it is for me. It's a huge pet peeve of mine, even though I've loved some books that easily could have been printed on lavender paper, but Passion is not the first romance written in an overly descriptive - or dramatic - fashion to have done tremendously well among our readers; Robin Schone managed it in two different years herself. Then again, Blair Mallory, the heroine of Linda Howard's To Die For, won as Best Heroine yet also "won" as Most Annoying Lead Character.

As for Valdez's tie to "win" Worst Read, perhaps her writing style is, in fact, a problem, or, and we've seen this before, it's a backlash for the book's popularity. And yet, just under half of those who voted her book as most purple also voted for it (or her) in at least one positive category, and she won in the Most Luscious Love Story category by such a huge percentage that adding together votes for an author who earned votes for two books in this category didn't even come close.

Lisa Valdez had this to say about her strong positive showing:

"I am honored and overjoyed that Passion has performed so incredibly well in AAR's Tenth Annual Reader Poll! Three wins and two Honorable Mentions! Well, that's just amazing and wonderful! I particularly love that Passion won Most Luscious Love Story, and earned an Honorable Mention as Most Hanky Read - because that result speaks to one of the points I was trying to make with Passion - that raw, urgent sex does not preclude romantic and moving emotion. I'm also excited to have earned an Honorable Mention for Best Buried Treasure and to have won Guiltiest Pleasure Read, because I love pleasing readers - even if they do feel guilty about it! <g>

"Finally, I am absolutely stunned over winning Best Debut Author - and out of such a remarkably talented field! Frankly, I was delighted just to make the interim list! But to win.?! When Passion hit the shelves, my first hope was that it would bring readers pleasure. This award realizes that hope, and that is a great gift to me. Thank you! Thank you to AAR for your dedication to the genre, and thank you to every reader who loved Passion enough to credit me with this amazing honor. I shall never be Best Debut Author again, but I shall also never forget how wonderful it feels. Thank you, forever thank you."

There is one more anomaly associated, in part, with Lisa Valdez, and that is the Worst Read category. For years now I've noticed that this category receives fewer votes than any other negative category. And, for a good number of readers who do choose to vote for Worst Read, there's some confusion about how it differs from Most Disappointing Read.

A reader who might have no trouble indicating what was her most disappointing read of the year will sometimes be unable to bring herself to type in the book she disliked most of all, and this is something I don't understand. If you've had a favorite book for the year, surely you had a least favorite as well. Questions of "niceness" seem immaterial given how many of those ballots with blank "worst romance" slots included votes for most, if not every other negative category. Why is this, do you think? If, as readers, we are clever enough to be literate and to discriminate between what we like and what we don't, why don't more people, given the anonymity of these ballots, simply be honest and fill in that category? Is it more "mean", after all, to say Book X was the worst book of the year than it is to say Author Y jumped the shark this year?

I think that some readers really don't differentiate between being incredibly disappointed in a book and actually despising it for being total and utter crap. It's obviously possible for the Most Disappointing Read to be a Worst Read, but from many of the ballots submitted, many readers don't make a distinction, instead choosing to simply "pile on" about a particular book. To clarify, a disappointing read isn't necessarily a horrible one...it's simply one that isn't as good as hoped for. Years ago, for instance, my vote for Most Disappointing Read was Dara Joy's High Intensity. While it certainly did not live up to my expectations for it, in no way was it the worst book I read that year.

Linda Howard

Just as Lisa Valdez's Passion earned positive and negative awards, so did Linda Howard and To Die For, with one win and four honorable mentions, along with a negative "win." Most interesting to me was that heroine Blair Mallory won as Best Heroine and Most Annoying Lead Character. Naturally, I asked the author about the dichotomy before anything else. After Howard told me about her just-discovered server woes (one thousand plus undelivered emails for a period of months of which only five downloaded, mine among them), she answered:

"I so understand why Blair received both Best Heroine and Most Annoying Lead Character! She made me laugh my head off, but I can also imagine her making people want to pull their hair out. She's snarky, vain, manipulative, and downright vindictive; she's also sharp as a tack, kind, forgiving, and loving. And funny. She knows herself down to the bone, is equally aware of all her faults and her virtues, and she has fun with both. If someone wouldn't want a real friend like Blair, then the character wouldn't appeal to her.

"Blair reminds me of the saying that I know has been all over the Internet, and you've probably read it. I can't quote it exactly, but it's something like: "When I die, I want to slide into heaven with a martini in one hand, a piece of chocolate in the other, shouting 'Woohoo, what a ride!'" That's how I see Blair, her eyes sparkling with devilment (is that a combination of devilry and merriment?), but ultimately being a good enough person to make it there, and having as much fun as she can along the way.

"I can't thank your readers enough for voting Blair both the best heroine and the most annoying one, because that means, somehow, she was multidimensional and real. Some folks liked her; some folks didn't - just like with real people. Wow, what a compliment! I'm doing something really silly right now and getting a little teary because, like I said, this has been a sucky day and I really needed some good news like this."

Lydia Joyce

The very young Lydia Joyce burst onto the scene in 2005 with two releases - the very gothic The Veil of Night - and the sumptuously set in Venice The Music of the Night, which was one of my two DIK reads for 2005. Oftentimes an author who has two books from the same sub-genre cancels herself out, which is something both Joyce and Anne Gracie experienced this year in a variety of categories. Even so, Joyce and The Music of the Night was our readers' choice for Best Buried Treasure Romance, and Joyce earned honorable mention in the Debut Author category.

Joyce considered herself "quite startled and flattered" to have shown up in our interim results in so many categories, and was "even more flattered" to have won one and earned honorable mention in a second. As a "vociferous (and pigheaded) proponent of sophisticated, intelligent romances," she'd been told in no uncertain terms from some in the romance community that "no romance reader would want" her kind of books, that instead she should write "sexy and frothy wallpaper historicals with feisty heroines, rakish heroes, and the usual round of tepid lemonade punctuated by steamy interludes in slightly risque but comfortably familiar English places." According to the author, "If readers like my books, the absolute best thing they can do, of course, is spread the word because my success will affect not only my future as a writer but the likelihood of publishers to take on more writers who touch on themes and tones similar to mine."

Although Joyce's first two romances certainly thrilled me, she, and to a lesser extent, Valdez, managed to do something generally reserved for lead authors with years and years and multiple best-sellers to accomplish...getting votes in the Authors Others Love that You Don't category. Originally that Authors Others Love that You Don't category was an "all-time" category rather than a yearly one, and because it's not a very good measure of any author for a single year, it's the first category we'll be retiring - don't look for it next year. On the other hand, determining when an author may have jumped the shark can be measured from year to year, so we'll definitely be keeping our Author You Gave Up On category. This year's "winner" in this dubious category was none other than my all-time favorite romance author - Julie Garwood - whose Slow Burn extinguished any remaining excitement in her as an author of contemporary romantic suspense. As Blythe reported from RWA last summer, Garwood's got an historical in the works. As one reader who didn't follow her, I keenly anticipate her return to the historical arena and can only hope that she is able to once again work her magic.

J.D. Robb

With the exception of last year, J.D. Robb's character Eve Dallas has won or received honorable mention for either or both Strongest and Best Heroine. That's right...Eve Dallas has wracked up six wins and earned six honorable mentions over the past decade, and more than twenty books. That's a phenomenal accomplishment, one I asked the author to comment upon. After expressing her delight that AAR's readers have continued to share their love for Eve for so long, Robb aka Nora Roberts had this to say: "Eve [is] a wonderful and complicated character to work with. I think part of the appeal for me, and hopefully for the reader, is her gradual evolution as a person as the series continues. She, and her relationships, have grown so that we see more of what makes her who and what she is. And we see how those relationships have and do broaden her scope. Of course, another appealing quality for me - and hopefully the reader - is that she kicks ass."

Diane Gaston and Janice Kay Johnson

As I mentioned earlier, until the very last day of voting, it looked as though there would be no award given for Best Series/Category Romance. While some might say that as long as one title earned more votes than another, that title should win, I realized that a threshold should be applied to all categories and if that threshold of votes was not met, no title would win, but would be eligible for an honorable mention. When the final day's votes were tallied, two titles had passed that threshold - Janice Kay Johnson's With Child, which was Ellen Micheletti's Reviewer's Choice, and Diane Gaston's The Mysterious Miss M. Johnson's book was a Harlequin Superromance; Gaston's was a Harlequin Historicals, and though many of us don't tend to think of HH's as series/category reads, technically they are.

In looking at all 2005 series titles reviewed at AAR, it's easy to see that it was not a banner year for these books. With Child earned DIK status, Evelyn Vaughn's Contact, Virginia Kantra's Stolen Memory, and Cheryl Reavis' Blackberry Winter earned B+s; all other A's and B+'s posted in 2005 in this area were for books published prior to 2005. So what does it say that a book many readers don't even consider part of the category tied for a win? And what does it say that only two other titles earned even half of the threshold number of votes, and that the majority of titles to earn more than one vote only earned three? Clearly the series romance is in trouble, but perhaps the trouble is even deeper than most of us considered.

The bright side, of course, is that the two books to win in this category are so obviously deserving of it. Particularly exciting is that, for a publisher not known for taking chances, Gaston's book is such a unique one, which is something the author mentioned when responding to my email about her tie to win:

"This is such a shock and surprise! I knew Miss M was well received on AAR but I had no idea it would spring ahead of so many other wonderful books by established authors who readers love.

"Remember, this is the book that almost never saw publication, having been rejected by every major romance publisher in the US before being picked up by Mills & Boon whose editor judged it in the Golden Heart. Editor after editor said that readers would not like my heroine, but I knew readers would love Maddie! And Devlin too."

With Child is a Superromance by an author whose quiet excellence makes her something of a buried treasure. Of the five books we've reviewed for Janice Kay Johnson, two earned DIK status, including the deeply emotional With Child, about which reviewer Ellen Micheletti wrote: "I was engrossed in it while I read it, I could not stop thinking about it when I finished, and I plan to re-read it again as soon as possible."

Johnson, whose writing confidence "fluctuates from day to day," shared that "nothing gives it a biggest boost than proof that real readers actually do like my book." She is thrilled with her win, and extends her thanks all those who loved the book and took time to vote. And, interesting to me, she indicated that writers, like readers, become attached to certain characters; the hero from With Child, she said, "really connected for me." He apparently did for those participating in our poll as well.

As for short stories, given the explosion in the past few years of anthologies, many of which feature Romantica by publishers such as Brava, Pocket, and Berkley, I was surprised that none of them reached the threshold. Is it the price tag accompanying these often trade-size books, or is it the more sexual content that's the problem? I enjoyed a number of short stories that were published in 2005, and those that were not published by a major print publisher were published by e-book publisher Ellora's Cave. While some e-books were voted for in this - and other categories (Lora Leigh's Elizabeth's Wolf, for instance, did reasonably well in the Most Luscious Love Story category) - even that did not energize the short story category.

When deciding which categories will include honorable mentions, I use a mathematical formula; the title in second (or third or even fourth) place must receive 80% or above the number of votes earned by the title in first place. Given that no short story met the threshold, I used that 80% against the threshold, and one short story - Meljean Brook's Falling for Anthony, part of the Hot Spell anthology - earned honorable mention. Brooks' story was her first published, but she maintains a popular blog. Not to diminish her achievement, but were her blog not written so entertainingly (it's one I read regularly), would even she have made the cut?

Surprisingly, when it came to crossing a threshold, the trad Regency category didn't pose a problem. I didn't find 2005 to be a great trad Regency year - and too bad since I'd have loved to see them go out with a bang - but three books crossed the threshold without any trouble. One of the three, though, earned well over twice the votes of the other two (which tied for second place) - Janet Mullany's Dedication. I asked the author, who debuted with her winning book, about the demise of the trad Regency, and she responded that she's likely not as sad about it as others are because she "never figured out what it really was," adding that it "seemed to be defined by packaging and marketing rather than content." She surmises that the reason for its demise was its lack of identity - "it's confusing for readers if they don't know whether they'll find the h/h tying each other up or tying one on at Almacks" - resulting in a loss of faith by readers and a drop in sales. Mullany is currently "concentrating on Regency Chick Lit and erotic historicals." Given that Dedication earned a "hot" sensuality rating from us, that sounds like a plan.

Julie Kenner

With the overall success of Chick Lit in the mainstream market, some romance authors are melding elements of Chick Lit into Romance, and few have done so better than Julie Kenner, whose The Givenchy Code won as your choice of Chick Lit/Women's Fiction. Although I was a huge fan of Howard's To Die For, I honestly could not understand why so many readers voted for it in this category, and actually rooted for Kenner's book to win simply because it was actually Chick Lit. Kenner said that winning was a "fabulous honor," and added, "I loved writing this book, spending time with the characters and figuring out the twists and turns of the story. And I'm over-the-moon-thrilled to know that readers loved being swept along on Mel and Stryker's adventure, too!"

Other Trends

It's impossible to look at trends without looking back. What can be learned? Had AAR existed so that this poll could have been conducted in 1995, Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels would likely have won as best romance of the year, which lends a nice symmetry to these results, which are spread fairly evenly between European Historicals (although again I'll note that Mr. Impossible was actually set in Egypt, giving lie to the idea that readers only want to read romances with UK settings), Contemporaries, and Romantic Suspense. It's been several years, though, since a European Historical won, and in both 2001 and 2000, the winners were not big names. 2002 - 2004 marked the pinnacle of Suzanne Brockmann's ascendancy, and while she does receive an honorable mention this year in the Romantic Suspense category for Hot Target, she also "earned" dishonorable mention in the Disappointing Read category for Breaking Point.

2006 DIK Mr. Impossible (Eur Hist - Chase) 2001 DIK Winter Garden (Eur Hist - Ashworth)
2005 DIK Bet Me (Contemp - Crusie) 2000 DIK The Lady's Tutor (Eur Hist - Schone)
2004 DIK Gone Too Far (Rom Susp - Brockmann) 1999 DIK Sea Swept (Contemp - Roberts)
2003 DIK Out of Control (Rom Susp - Brockmann) 1998 N/A Nobody's Baby But Mine (Contemp - SEP)
2002 DIK Over the Edge (Rom Susp - Brockmann) 1997 N/A Shattered Rainbows (Eur Hist - MJP)

A very strong indicator of how widely an author is being read is the Most Glommed category. 1997, the year when Mary Jo Putney won for best romance of the year, she was also the author most glommed. Nora Roberts was most glommed between 1998 and 2000; she won for best romance for 1999 with Sea Swept. Suzanne Brockmann, who earned three best romances of the year for 2002, 2003, and 2004, was the author most glommed for 2001, 2002, and 2003. And when Mary Balogh began to hit with her Slightly series in 2004, it's no surprise she was the author most glommed, an honor she shares this time around with Anne Stuart.

Author Most Glommed
Best Debut Author Author You Gave Up On
2006 Mary Balogh/Anne Stuart Lisa Valdez Julie Garwood
2005 Sherrilyn Kenyon Marianne Stillings Stephanie Laurens
2004 Mary Balogh Deirdre Martin Stephanie Laurens
2003 Suzanne Brockmann Shannon McKenna Stephanie Laurens
2002 Suzanne Brockmann Anne Gracie Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick
2001 Suzanne Brockmann Madeline Hunter Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick
2000 Nora Roberts Liz Carlyle Catherine Coulter
1999 Nora Roberts Adele Ashworth * Jude Deveraux
1998 Nora Roberts Jenny Lykins Catherine Coulter
1997 Mary Jo Putney   Catherine Coulter
* We didn't offer "best debut" author in 1999, just the best "new to you" author. Ashworth earned first honorable mention in that year to SEP, so we've slotted her here. Jenny Lykins, who debuted in 1998, won the category for that year. No debuting author appeared in the results for "new to you" author for 1997.

For the most part, debuting authors have a strong history of longevity at AAR; witness the staying power of every author other than Jenny Lykins, whose last book was published in 1998. The winning debut author last year, Marianne Stillings, is set to have her third book released next month; if her cover is any indication, look for it to fly off the shelves.

And finally, the unfortunate authors who appear on our "who jumped the shark this year?" list generally do so more than once, so unless Garwood does have that as-promised historical published, she may also repeat.

Although not fully reflected in the final results, the world of paranormal/alternate reality romance continues to make its presence known. Not only did Elizabeth Vaughan earn a number of votes in the best debuting author category, the excitement surrounding her book Warprize, and that surrounding J.R. Ward's Dark Lover was palpable throughout the polling process. And speaking of Dark Lover...

J.R. Ward

I've been tempted to read Dark Lover ever since Sybil's review hit my in-box, but committing to another group of vampires is not something I take lightly. The urban flavor Sybil described, though, is slowly winning me over. Although Ward has written before as Jessica Bird, it's her first book as Ward that struck a major chord. Ward was "absolutely floored" that our readers loved her book. When the idea for "the Brothers" first arose, she "vowed to do the very best" she could to tell their stories, adding that in many ways, she's "nothing more than their first reader." Ward's emotions have run high since developing this series; as she writes the books, she "watches and listens and sees what happens and my heart breaks and soars with each twist and turn." She's extremely gratified that readers experience "these warriors" similarly and extends her thanks for their support. She concludes: "The world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood is a wonderful, scary, beautiful place and I love that I get to live a little in it. So I hope everyone knows how much I appreciate their kindness!"

How'd We Do?

One thing this poll allows us to do is to see how we're doing as compared to our readership in determining tastes. Nearly 2/3's of the books you awarded received DIK status from us; the lowest grade any received was a B-. And not that it matters to anyone but me, but Black Ice came thisclose to earning DIK status from me while To Die For was my choice for Best Romance of the Year.

DIK A Breath of Snow and Ashes DIK Dark Lover
DIK It Happened One Autumn DIK Match Me If You Can
DIK Mr. Impossible DIK The Music of the Night
DIK The Mysterious Miss M DIK Survivor In Death
DIK Till Next We Meet DIK With Child
B+ To Die For B+ The Givenchy Code
B Black Ice B Dedication
B Passion B- Return of the Warrior

What this table doesn't capture is that What Do You Say To a Naked Elf? tied to win with It Happened One Autumn for Worst Read - yet both earned DIK status among our review staff. All of us upon occasion love books that cause others among us to scratch our heads in a "what the f_ck?" fashion, and the latter did also win a cagetory - and as a stand-alone - but when thinking about both of this year's Worst Reads and last year's also-DIK-awarded Worst Read, it begs the question: are we on the receiving end of some backlash ourselves (and, gee, how self-important is that bit of paranoia)?<g>

Before you read the message board questions and post about the column, let me remind you that we'll be changing our schedule for ATBF. Beginning in two weeks look for a shorter, weekly column to be published on Mondays as opposed to the first and third Mondays of the month. We've got some other new developments in the works as well, but aren't quite ready to make them public.

Time To Post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions in addition to the others posed in the body of the column itself:

What are your overall reactions to our tenth annual reader poll?

What did your own ballot look like? How many of the books listed had you read? With what percentage of the final tally did you agree? Are you inclined to read any of the books that did well that are in your tbr (or possibly tbb) pile? And, if you are one of those many readers who didn't read a tremendous number of 2005-published romances, do you now feel as though you missed something?

Do you believe we're in a period of transition? Are you surprised by which authors made it into our winners' circle - and/or which ones did not?

What are the big surprises in this year's results as far as you're concerned? Which results didn't surprise you at all?

If you were handing out these awards based on your own votes, which books/authors would have won?

Fill in the blank: Author _____ did not have a release for 2005 and it was sorely missed.

Looking back over the information presented for the past decade, what do you think about it? Any surprises or trends that you see?

How many of you are currently reading series fiction? Did you used to read them but then stopped? Are you new to them? Are Harlequin's recent changes (Bombshell last year, Next this year, elimination of Temptations, expansion of Blazes, etc.) helping or hurting?

Do we need to add an e-book category or should we simply continue to count votes for various e-books in the appropriate categories? Also, is eliminating the Authors Others Love that You Don't a good idea given that this is an annual poll and not an all-time poll?

 

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

2006 AAR Reader Awards
Interim Results
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