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March 20, 2006 - Issue #218

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

With this ATBF we kick off our new, weekly schedule of shorter columns. This week's column comes from me, and it seems fitting, now that we've just reached out ten year mark for the column, that we essentially start over again, at the beginning. And that means not only shorter columns, but more open-ended ones upon occasion, wherein the columnist may present very short segments seeking input on particular topics, then expand upon them in a later column. This sort of follow-up is what I used exclusively for the first couple of years of ATBF because we didn't have message boards - only email. And so, I would ask questions and provide email links throughout the earlier columns, then write follow-up columns with the material provided by those who emailed me.

Reader's Block

Apparently I'm in the middle of some sort of existential angst, because I'm suffering, for the first time in my life, from reader's block. Last year was my biggest reading year ever, so it may well be burn-out. I'm trying not to panic, because I honestly feel quite antsy being unable to read, but even magazines cannot seem to hold my interest these days. I think I've read a grand total of three or four books thus far this year, and while the first was a DIK, it's been entirely downhill since then.

I've tried switching sub-genres, switching genres, comfort reading, re-reading of all-time favorites, and for a time tried to read nothing at all. Nothing has been effective...even Entertainment Weekly no longer interests me, prompting my husband to say, tongue firmly in cheek, "I don't know you anymore." It's one thing for a reader to be unable to read for a period of time, but for the publisher of a book-related web site, it's an incredibly scary proposition.

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I'm hopeful that in another month or so, this too shall pass, and actually have not stopped buying the books I hope to read once this block ends, but wonder: have any of you gone through a reader's block? How long did it last, and was there anything in particular you tried that helped you over the hump? While I'm not talking about a genre slumps, feel free to talk about romance reading slumps on the message board as well.

Good Guy versus Bad Boy Smackdown

While watching Lost several weeks ago, it struck me anew how well my favorite broadcast television show illustrates the hero and the anti-hero, the good guy and the bad boy. And it doesn't do so in a black hat/white hat fashion either; the good guy sometimes crosses over to the dark side while the bad boy occasionally crosses into the light. It's the tension between good and evil as well as the moral ambiguity each of the show's characters is imbued with that fascinates me. Which is why I wondered...what would happen in a Good Guy versus Bad Boy Smackdown?

For instance, I fell in love with Hunter Fletcher after reading Lorraine Heath's Smooth Talkin' Stranger, so much so that I wrote about how sexy a truly competent hero can be. This type of hero in many ways, I believe, is an old school man, thus defined by the man who wrote about him in a 2002 magazine article:

"Old School is plain old zest for being a man, for the whole gender-rich story. It embraces both the swagger of the Y chromosome - the strength, the lust, the appetites, the right to an opinion - and the obligations that come with cojones. To Old Schoolers, duties aren't burdens at all; they're reveille, rousing the better parts of us. Old school is proud of all the gender stuff - both the polished elegance of Cary Grant and the unvarnished frankness of your Uncle Stosh. Do these conflict? Sure. Nobody ever said it was simple to be a man. If it were, more guys would try it."

In my earlier days, the Hunter Fletcher type of hero was not as exciting as the pure adrenaline rush of the bad boy. Both share the strength, the lusts, and the appetites; it's in the obligations and duties where they seem to differ. Hunter and Nora Roberts' Rogan Sweeney (Born in Fire) are two strong examples of the Good Guy hero, and if you'll notice, neither is a beta...both are pure alpha. Compare and contrast them with Sebastian in Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels or Rafael de Fiore, the crown prince in Gaelen Foley's Prince Charming. Rafael was the 1816 version of 1980s Eurotrash excess (remember those wacky Germans, the Prince and Princess Thurn and Taxis?), and as for Sebastian, before meeting and loving Jessica and learning what it takes to be a good man, he could well have been the model for the poster of the Bad Boy. When I read that sentence over, it becomes clear...the difference is between man and boy. As fun as boys can be, I'd much rather be with a man. What about you?

On the message board, please share with us up to three of your favorite Good Guys and three of your favorite Bad Boys. After you've compared and contrasted them, describe for us how a smackdown between a set of each might play out. Next month I'll be presenting a follow-up segment based on your posts to the board.

Cover Quotes and Back Cover Blurbs

We recently posted a review for Kinley MacGregor's Sword of Darkness. The front cover of the book includes this quote from MacGregor's aka, Sherrilyn Kenyon: "Kinley McGregor writes fantasy the way I could." Although this is something of a tongue-in-cheek in-joke for those who know she is one and the same person, the typical person buying a romance novel at Target, the grocery store, the airport, or even while browsing the bookstore may not know they are the same person. Is this a very clever way to promote a book, or does it strike you as not quite kosher?

Cover quotes in and of themselves can be dicey; I can recall negative AAR reviews that were chopped up so that they sounded positive when blurbed on a book. And then there was this quote by Jill Barnett on a Julia Quinn some years ago: "Julia Quinn is truly our contemporary Jane Austen." While this wasn't a problem for me, I can recall a bit of backlash against Quinn because of Barnett's quote. The statements were along the lines of "How dare anyone compare Quinn to Austen!"

As for back cover blurbs, they can be misleading at best and reveal spoilers at worst. Many of the Harlequin Presents romances I read during my heavy-duty foray into that particular series featured back cover blurbs that did a horrible job describing storylines - particularly where babies and mistresses were concerned - and more than a couple of AAR reviewers have warned readers not to read the back cover blurb of specific books in order to avoid plot spoilers. My ATBF co-columnist Anne Marble even recalls the front cover of a suspense novel giving a spoiler!

When it comes to cover quotes and/or back cover blurbs, how often do you pay attention to them, and to what degree, when deciding which books to buy and/or read? Are there particular cover quotes that annoyed you, and have you ever been burned by a back cover blurb?

The Series Romance, the Continuity Series, and Connected Books in General

The general con census is that 2005 was a crappy year for category romances. I know it was for me. Is 2006 shaping up to be a better year? AAR's Blythe Banner, who doesn't read a whole lot of series romances, did start an actual series of series romances this year. She's now read and reviewed all three books in the Dynasties: The Elliotts continuity series. As one of our toughest reviewers, I've been quite interested to see her grades thus far. Two of the books earned B-'s while the third earned a C+. I hope that if she decides to read through the entire year-long continuity series, that she has a better result than I've had with these editor created and road mapped mini-series.

Some continuity series last for three or four months, and what distinguishes this type of mini-series from other series/category romance mini-series besides their genesis is this: each month's release is written by a different author who writes a romance for a couple that ties into that continuity. AAR's Ellen Micheletti and Leigh Thomas have more experience with the continuity than I do; I gave up on the one year-long series I attempted to follow from beginning to end just a couple of books in. And though I continue to occasionally read books within continuity series when written by favorite authors, I'm not quite sure why. None have been particular favorites and, more often than not, they are contrived and among the worst in my reading experience for these authors, which include Leanne Banks, Christie Ridgway, and Eileen Wilks.

Although I've not done a study on the continuity mini-series, those I've investigated feature well-known, well-selling series authors as well as those who are substantially lesser known. I suppose that even if it's true that books in these mini-series are not the authors' best, those lesser-known authors are likely guaranteed higher sales - and therefore name recognition - by their participation. That doesn't explain the participation of the better-known authors...perhaps they believe their talent can make it work.

Leigh followed much of the Family Secrets continuity, and all of the Family Secrets: The Next Generation series as well. While the initial series must have sold well, it yielded a mixed result among our review staff, the majority of titles earned grades in the C level. Leigh, who read and reviewed the entire follow-up series, enjoyed it more; four of the six titles earned grades in the B range. As for Ellen, she has followed two year-long continuity series for AAR, although after her experience with A Year of Loving Dangerously - eight C level grades, three B level grades, and one D+ - I was surprised when she decided to devote another year of reading to The Ashtons, which fared even worse in her estimation.

I asked Ellen for her thoughts on the continuity series. Here's what she had to say, about connected books in general, and specifically, the continuity series:

I love books in series. I follow lots of series, and it would take pages to list them all. I know some readers aren't fond of books in series, but I've always wanted to know what comes next, and have been that way ever since I discovered that Nancy Drew was a continuing series of books. I've glommed all of Jo Beverley's Company of Rogues series, I have all J.D. Robb's In Death titles, all Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books, all the Harry Potter books, the entire Chronicles of Narnia, and lots more. I also like series (category) romances, so when Silhouette Desire announced that they would be publishing Dynasties: The Ashtons, a year long mini-series about a family dynasty in the wine business, I decided I would follow it. I had read an earlier series, 36 Hours, published by Harlequin in 1998, and had enjoyed it. Likewise, I had read all the titles in the Silhouette Intimate Moments series A Year of Loving Dangerously which, while not what I had hoped for, had a couple of very good titles in it. Dynasties: The Ashtons sounded like a nice juicy soap opera like the old television show Falcon Crest, and I looked forward to it.

The first book, Entangled, began with a scene featuring the patriarch of the family, Spencer Ashton. He was evil, selfish and only out for himself. I perked up - I love a good juicy villain and Spencer seemed to be a prime one. The rest of the book set up the story arc and married off the first member of the Ashton family . It wasn't great, but it wasn't too bad, so I thought I had an interesting series ahead of me.

The second book, A Rare Sensation was totally forgettable and things went downhill from there. The rest of the books settled down to a very dull formula: Introduce the main character. Introduce his or her love interest. Get them together, then advance the back story a millimeter. The characters were almost all romance model types: Arrogant executive, shy good girl, socialite, half Indian, bad boy, Cinderella, and so on. None of the characters were particularly interesting and the back story, which I thought was way more interesting than the romances wasn't developed to any degree.

Spencer Ashton had been married three times but never bothered to divorce his first wife, thus making his second and third marriages illegal and his children illegitimate. Spencer also had a child by a mistress and treated all his families with indifference and contempt. When he was shot and killed, his bigamy and philandering came to light, but the problems his death caused to his family were mostly glossed over. Periodically someone would mention them but then the book would get back to the matchmaking. Spencer Ashton was killed fairly early on in the series and one of his sons was a suspect for a brief time. But we never saw much of the investigation into the murder, and the case was solved mostly offstage before the last book. The suspense was nil.

As I look over my grades for the titles in this series I see six D level grades, four grades in the C range, and a lone B-. Most of the twelve books simply were forgettable. The book I liked best was Mistaken For A Mistress. It had a couple of interesting and likable characters, smoothly integrated the back story with the love story and was the only one I considered keeping. But since none of the other books interested me, I gave it to my sister instead.

After Dynasties: The Ashtons, I've pretty much given up on following a continuity series all the way through for a full year, but I do follow some of the shorter non-continuity series published by Harlequin Superromance. These are generally based upon members of a family or a group of people who work together. Their backstories are fairly simple - usually conflicts with a father or mother or something along that line - and the reader learns about it via flashbacks or from conversations between the characters. Since the backstory isn't all that complicated, it's fairly easy for someone to come into a series in the middle and not get lost, which was my experience with Janice Kay Johnson's Patton's Daughter's series and Kathryn Shay's Code of Honor firefighter series. But it's hard to do justice to a year long mini-series with a mystery backstory given the audience and the confines of series romances, especially the short ones like those in the Desire line. Desires are so short that it is hard to give much of the story arc since the writer must concentrate on the romance between her characters. Also, because readers may pick up one book without having read the earlier titles, there is a struggle between providing enough backstory and too much. Either way and you risk an entire set of readers. This hasn't been a problem in the Superromance series I've read. It's not hard for the causal reader to get lost in a short series, and it's easier for the author to play catch-up for the reader.

My experiences with reading year long mini-series have led me to this conclusion: From now on I will buy books by authors whose work I have enjoyed in the past and skip following a category romance series for a whole year. But I will follow shorter series as well as full length book ones. As a matter of fact, I just discovered a wonderful one - J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood (the first release earned DIK status and was voted Best Alt Reality/Paranormal in our recent reader poll) , and I am well and truly hooked on that one.

Have you had any experience with a continuity series? If so, was it a positive, neutral, or overall negative experience, and why? If you didn't particularly enjoy it, did you follow the series through to the bitter end, or did you perhaps give up, like me, fairly early on? And while we're on the subject of series/category romance, do you agree that 2005 was a lousy year for reading them, and if so, why? Is 2006 better so far? Finally, has your opinion in general on connected books changed recently? Are you enjoying book number whatever of what was once a favorite author's series, or should there be a moratorium declared?

Time To Post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions :

If you've experienced a reader's block, how long did it last, and how did you move past it?

When was your last romance reading slump? How long did it last, and how did you get over it? If you're still in one, feel free to talk about it as well.

Compare and contrast up to three of your favorite Good Guys and Bad Boys. Then describe how a smackdown between a set of each might play out.

How often do you pay attention to cover quotes and/or back cover blurbs? To what degree do either come into play when deciding which books to buy and/or read? Were there particular cover quotes that annoyed you, and have you ever been burned by a back cover blurb?

Have you ever read or planned to read through a continuity series? If so, are you glad or mad that you did. If you started such a series and it didn't catch on for you, did you stick it out or did you give up?

Was 2005 was a lousy year for reading series/category romance, and if so, why? What should Harlequin/Silhouette do to make theese books better? Are 2006 series releases an improvement over 2005?

Has your opinion in general on connected books changed recently? Are you enjoying book number whatever of what was once a favorite author's series, or should there be a moratorium declared?

 

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

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