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March 27, 2006 - Issue #219

From the Desk of Anne Marble: Tracking Down those Hard To Find Books

With all those new romance novels on the shelves, and a TBR tower, sometimes all I can think about is the books I don't have and can't find. Often, those books are rare, out of print, and not to be found in most used book stores. Or when I do find it, the owner usually has it in the collectible section, and the price is more than I'm willing to pay.

I love hunting for rare books, especially if I can find them cheap. I've prowled bookstores (even smelly ones with dark corners), on-line auctions, thrift shops, and garage sales. And as of this week, I even joined the Bookstorejunkies mailing lists, because not only do I want to find some titles, but I want to give some of my unwanted books a good home. I've never gone so far as to spend more than fifteen bucks on a rare romance (I've come close!), but give it time! I've certainly paid that and more for some horror and SF/fantasy titles.

But sometimes catching a title isn't what it's cracked up to be. Finally getting your hands on a title can be a major letdown. Years ago, I read a bibliography called Gothic Novels of the Twentieth Century by Elsa J. Radcliffe. I sought out some titles based on Radcliffe's recommendations, and I loved the books of Evelyn Berckman and Cecily Crowe, among others. But after the trouble of finding it, I couldn't get into any of the Marie Corelli books that Radcliffe recommended. Corelli's writing was often metaphysical, and could be very dense. She was very sensational in her day, but I couldn't get beyond the beginnings of the stories recommended by Radcliffe. For example, one of them starts with like this:

We live in an age of universal inquiry, ergo of universal skepticism. The prophecies of the poet, the dreams of the philosopher and scientist, are being daily realized - things formerly considered mere fairy-tales have become facts - yet, in spite of the marvels of learning and science that are hourly accomplished among us, the attitude of mankind is one of disbelief. "There is no God!" cries one theorist; "or if there be one, I can obtain no proof of His existence!

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Phew! What a mouthful! Also, my skimming showed that when Corelli does get into the plot, her dialogue can be melodramatic. For example, "Oh, mademoiselle," she exclaimed, "have you not dread of that terrible man? Is it not he that is reported to be a cruel mesmerist who sacrifices everybody - yes, even his own sister, to his medical experiments? Ah, mon Dieu! it makes me to shudder!" You really have to be in the right mood to get into Marie Corelli's writing.

On the other hand, I didn't much like Elsie Lee's Season of Evil when I first read it, although her writing may be as far from Corelli's as you can get. But when I gave it another chance, it had magically turned into a whole 'nother book. This time, I realized that unlike so many books with this sort of plot, the heroine was very strong. She could take care of herself. This wasn't one of those books with an angry hero stomping about and calling the heroine names. This was a story about a heroine smart enough to clear her own name. Can we have more heroines like that, please?!

So there may be some hope for books that didn't work for me the first time. Maybe even the Corelli...

But then you have the books that will probably never work for me. Showing my usual sense of good taste, I sometimes look for books just because they generate controversy and anger among readers. I should know better by now! After reading discussions on the RTR board, I kept an eye out for Christine Monsons' notorious Stormfire at the used bookstore. Was it as bad as so many people said? Or was it romantic in that over-the-top bodice ripper way? Could I enjoy it as campy fun? Then I started the book. The rape at the beginning was horrific enough, but on top of that, that stinker of a hero made the heroine do housework, treating her like a drudge! Shortly after the horrid rape, the "hero" hands the heroine off to his staff. She's made to sleep on a straw pallet, forced to wear a shapeless shirt like all the other servants, and then relegated to the kitchen. ("For the next few hours Catherine folded dough, longing to pillow her head in the soft mass to sleep forever. At last, a bell sounded by the hearth nearest the door and her stomach gave a gurgle of joy. Breakfast!") But before she can eat, she's forced to serve the hero at his table. All because the hero wants revenge against her father. Or was that because he was too cheap to hire on more servants and was forced to kidnap them from central casting? Anyway, enough is enough! I shoved that book in a box.

But the weird time is that sometimes getting my hands on an elusive copy of a book is a letdown before I can read the book to find out what I think. Maybe I'm weird, but I'm often reluctant to start a hard-to-find book once I get my hands on it. What if I hate it, after all this trouble? Sure, lots of other people loved that book - but lots of people loathed it as well. Maybe it's not my style after all. For example, I recently bought a copy of Teresa Deny's The Silver Devil on eBay at a good price. But as soon as it came in the mail, I thought, "Now what do I do with it?" It wasn't that I didn't want to read it. But I was hesitant because I had heard so much about it, both good and bad (is the hero evil, or is he merely Machiavellian to the extreme?), and because I was afraid I might damage the book. It's like buying one of those fancy new journals and then realizing you can't write in it because that would mess it up. While I got a good price, I still didn't want to read it in the tub or carry it in my book bag where it could be damaged. But finally, I wanted to read it enough that I found a protective bag for it so that I could carry it around in my purse. Because of my experience with Stormfire, I was surprised when I began to enjoy it. Then again, the beleaguered heroine and I haven't met the notorious hero yet, so we'll have to see.

So what have your experiences with hard-to-find books been? Did you ever track down a hard-to-find book, only to end up being disappointed in it? What kept it from being a great read? On the other hand, which hard-to-find books have been worth the trouble (and money)? What's the most you ever spent on a collectible romance? Was it worth it? Also, are you ever afraid to read a hard-to-find book once you find a copy?

When Only the "Wrong" Kind of Book Will Do

Like many romance readers, I don't have a TBR pile - I have a TBR apartment. There are dozens of books by authors like Judith Ivory, Julia Quinn, Loretta Chase, Laura Kinsale, and others waiting for me to read them. Not to mention scads of paranormals. And I want to read them. I know they're great writers. But often, I'm lured away by those very "wrong" books. How wrong? Well, books with horrible heroes or with huge big misunderstandings, or slick and easy to read books that I'll slip into easily.

One of my latest "wrong" books was Catherine Coulter's controversial Devil's Embrace. Sure, I'd read all the horrified reviews about it, including AAR's. In her review AAR reviewer Lily Berry wrote, "It seems to me that many of the 'rapes' that take place in romance fiction rarely resemble the brutality and violation of real rape. But Coulter seems unwilling to settle for anything less than the real thing." Or as a reader on Amazon said of the hero, "I hate Anthony. He should be castrated."

But was it anything like those reviewers said? Oh it certainly was, in spades. On top of that, it was travelogue heavy. (It's OK to piss me off as a reader, but don't bore me!) Still, I finished it, with a lot of skimming. Through it all, I kept thinking "This would have been great if the idiot hadn't raped her, and if she had cut back on the travelogue and internal monologue. Oh, and cut out the brutal gang rape."

So why didn't I just read a nice comfortable Julia Quinn story instead? I could say that sometimes we don't want to be comfortable, we want to have our comfort zones dented. But I don't think there were such deep psychological reasons behind reading those books. Instead, it's like the lure of watching a car wreck tied in with the easy excitement that all those "bad" elements bring us. We don't always want something deep or even something light. Sometimes we want angst and anger, and what better way to find that in a story than to plunge into the "wrong" kind of book.

Have you ever turned to the "wrong" kind of book, even if you had plenty of other books to choose from? What is the lure? Also, do you ever end up with readers' regret afterwards?

The Lure of Bad Reviews

Do you ever read a book because of bad reviews or bad buzz, just to see if it's as bad as everyone says? Sometimes a really negative review can make a book more attractive, in the same way that I sometimes want to see a movie just because the big name reviewers say that only people with bad taste would enjoy it. I can still remember the afternoon I was deciding whether or not to see The Scorpion King at the theater. (The Rock, bare-chested and in leather...what could go wrong?!) Hesitant at first, I checked the reviews. Most of them complained that this was a crass, empty movie full of senseless action scenes and loud noises. For example, Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribute said it was "Another grandiose, hyperactive crock, full of lame jokes and gorgeous, stupefying images." And Joshua Vasquez of Matinee Magazine said it "Reeks of rot and hack work from start to finish." Other reviewers compared it to a comic book or complained that it was mindless and stupid. That's when I knew I had to see it! And guess what, I loved every minute of it. Especially the Rock's chest. Uhm, where was I again?...

Then there was the review for James Crumley's private eye novel The Last Good Kiss that praised the book to the high heavens but warned readers not to read the last chapter because it ruined the whole book! Faced with a review like that, who could resist? I gulped down that book, and of course, devoured the final chapter. While I could see why the reviewer had hated it, I thought it gave the novel an extra edge.

In some ways, romance reviews can have the same effect. If a reviewer complains that the hero did something stupid near the end that ruined the book for her, I want to read the book to find out what he did. If a reviewer warns us that a book is full of stupid big misunderstandings or a lame big secret, then I am so there.

It all boils down to wanting to find out "what happens next." Still, you'd think that by now, I'd learn that curiosity killed the cat! All too often, the reviewer turns out to be right. The hero really was a stupid ass at the end, or the big misunderstandings or secrets were truly lame. Yet you never know. Sometimes reading the book anyway will help you find a new keeper. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I've read horribly negative reviews of everything from Linda Howard's Mackenzie's Mountain to Donna Simpson's Lord St. Claire's Angel (one of my keepers) - although thankfully not at AAR.

Also, reviews don't have to tickle my curiosity to make me interested in a book. A well-written negative review (like the ones here, of course!) will tell me enough about the book to tell me whether or not I might want to read it after all. For example, if the reviewer complains that the characters were too angst-ridden or the story was too Gothic, I make it a point to check that book out, just in case... After all, everyone at AAR knows what is often repeated on the boards - a review is just one person's opinion. What might truly annoy one reviewer could be just up my alley. In the same way, lots of people probably decided to buy Sharon Abe's The Smoke Thief because the review mentioned the cruelty of the hero, just as that was enough to make many readers avoid it.

The reaction to the review of The Smoke Thief proves that I'm not the only one out there who finds negative reviews an irresistible lure that only draws us into the book. Have you ever read a book because of a negative review? What was it about the review that led you to read the book? Do you often end up agreeing with the reviewer after all, or are you more likely to decide the reviewer was must have been smoking something? <g>

Time To Post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions :

So what have your experiences with hard-to-find books been? Did you ever track down a hard-to-find book, only to end up being disappointed in it? What kept it from being a great read? On the other hand, which hard-to-find books have been worth the trouble (and money)? What's the most you ever spent on a collectible romance? Was it worth it? Also, are you ever afraid to read a hard-to-find book once you find a copy?

Have you ever turned to the "wrong" kind of book, even if you had plenty of other books to choose from? What is the lure? Also, do you ever end up with readers' regret afterwards?

Have you ever read a book because of a negative review? What was it about the review that led you to read the book? Do you often end up agreeing with the reviewer after all, or are you more likely to decide the reviewer was must have been smoking something?

 

Anne Marble

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