Issue #62 (November 15, 1998)

Thank God It's Over!
My romance reading rut is over - finally! After weeks upon end of feeling more and more anxiety over not wanting to pick up and read another romance, I hit a winning streak and feel back in the zone, so to speak. All it took were a few good (to great), funny romances, and suddenly I can't read them fast enough again. Good thing too, because the fourth book I picked up was Inner Harbor by Nora Roberts, and it wouldn't have done to not have been able to love that one. My review of the upcoming Roberts', btw, should be online in a couple of days (Nov 19: You can read my review here).

Which books did the trick? Portrait of My Heart by Patricia Cabot came first, and it was wickedly funny and wickedly sexy. It was part screwball comedy, part black comedy. Rarely have I come to love such an unrepentant rake, who, even when he tried to make things right, made them right wickedly. Then came Love at First Sight, a medieval "beast and the beast" romance. I've never read a "beast and the beast romance;" does that title make sense? While not as good as Cabot's book, debuting author Sandra Lee shows tremendous promise. Her earthy sense of humor lent itself wonderfully to the medieval setting. And, finally, The Last Rogue by Deborah Simmons. I believe this title should be added to the dictionary as a description for "droll." Deborah Simmons just keeps getting better and better, funnier and sexier, even if this book seems tamer than some of her earlier ones.

While dark and brooding romances make up a good half of my keeper shelf, they don't seem to work for me when I'm in a slump. That's when I need a strong dose of laughter to get me back on track. Its fitting then, that reader Mark Pottenger recently wrote us asking whether we would consider adding a humor rating to our reviews. While we can't do that because not all romances are humorous ones, I did point out that one of our Special Title Listings is called Favorite Funnies.

A Serious Look at Humor in Romance Novels:
Because Mark so enjoys humor in romance, I asked him to comment on Favorite Funnies. Here's what Mark had to say in a piece he titled:

A Serious Look at Humor in Romance Novels

I am a man who started reading romance novels in the early 1990's after reading mostly fantasy and science fiction for many years. I specifically look for books with humor and went through all of my sister's books that she recommended as having humor. (She keeps some other authors that she does not recommend to me - good but humorless.) I then started collecting what I could find based on authors already known, blurbs, and personal and online recommendations, creating a somewhat haphazard collection.

I prefer intentional humor to unintentional humor from bad writing.

Regency Romances are supposed to be comedies of manners, so that sub-genre is still the first place to look for funny romances. This does not necessarily apply to historical novels set in the Regency, though some are funny.

Since my siblings (sister and one of my brothers) have read hundreds more romances than I have, their recommendations have helped me avoid a lot of books without humor. We devised a scale from negative 1(don't bother to read) to five based on humor level. Too much seriousness or unpleasantness can pull down the score (the perceived humor level) of a book even though it might contain some humor. Mostly we mark individual books, but a few authors are so consistent that we have marked the author. Stars on the author don't mean all books are at that level, but that the author has reached that level and is consistently good.

Five stars means a book is consistently funny throughout the first (and later readings), with the possible exception of a final downslope just before the final upslope in the typical romance roller coaster ride. For the highest rating, the humor should be of the laugh-out-loud variety. The Mad Miss Mathley by Michelle Martin is one of the best examples of 5-star humor.

Our ratings are simple scores. People who prefer labels to ratings might consider: snicker, groan (puns), giggle, chortle, chuckle, laugh, guffaw, oh my god!, belly laugh, laugh till you cry, laugh till you cough (in some cities).

Humor is very individual. I don't believe any two people in the world will always find all the same things funny. I have given stars to books my brother gave none to, and vice versa. Since very few people have unlimited book budgets, my suggestion for anyone looking for humor in romances is to find someone with a similar sense of humor who has read and rated more or different books. The easiest way to find out how similar your senses of humor are is to compare lists. For the visually inclined, this comparison could literally be done as a graph. Pick 5 to 10 titles you have both read and write them in a column in order of your own scores for them. If you and the other tend to agree on ratings on books you have both read, your senses of humor are reasonably congruent. The next best guide is a parallel sense of humor you both give similar ratings to books, but one of you consistently gives higher ratings than the other. If your high ratings tend to hit the other's low ratings and vice versa, your senses of humor are mostly perpendicular such a person can still be a guide as long as you remember to choose the opposite of what they recommend.

BTW, this technique for finding out what sort of guide a reviewer is for your tastes can also be applied to overall romance ratings, sensuality ratings, or any other score used in reviews.

Many romances are both stronger romances and funnier on second and later readings. I think many romances that incorporate too much of other genres (history, mystery, suspense, etc.) are actually more enjoyable as romances and humor on a second reading. The other material is known and doesn't get in the way of spotting the romance and humor. I enjoy Garwood and Quick and some other historical and romantic suspense books, but most of them are better after the first reading because the suspense is out of the way. This also applies to "switcheroo" romances like Heyer's Sprig Muslin, Regency Buck or Cotillion once you know who will get together in the end you can notice details of their earlier interactions you might have ignored on first reading. (Switcheroo romances are ambiguous or deliberately misleading for much of the book about who will end up together.) I still don't like a "historomance" or "mysteromance" or "switcheroo" as much as a straight romance or comedy of manners because the other material usually hurts the Romance Quotient, but they can be enjoyed more when I know what to expect.

I think readers' expectations in approaching books have a lot to do with how well they like the books. For example, anyone who has read Heyer Regencies would expect to find a lot of humor in any previously unread Heyer book. That is part of the reason I did not particularly like An Infamous Army on first reading I expected a romance and found a military history. On rereading An Infamous Army recently due to some remarks on the Heyer list, I had different expectations. I saw more romance and humor than I remembered from the first reading, and skimmed the military history I wasn't interested in rereading. For the same reason, I always read back cover blurbs before reading books, and I prefer the blurbs that identify the hero and heroine because that lets me pay special attention to (root for) those characters from the beginning.

A consistent author is a blessing for readers like me. Having first encountered Krentz under her Quick pseudonym, I also read her as Krentz, James, and Castle. Her style is different under each name, but the names let me know roughly what level of humor, sexuality, etc. to expect. Uneven authors are more of a challenge. I have rated books by Susan Elizabeth Phillips at every score from 0 to 5. I first read Nobody's Baby But Mine and gave it 5 stars for humor. I then bought as many of her other books as I could find, and encountered widely varying levels of humor. Even more uneven is Johanna Lindsey, with books ranging from very good to downright nasty.

Sometimes book titles give a hint at the humor level. I look for books with words like headstrong, impetuous, impulsive, madcap, wild, hoyden, minx, charade, disguise, impostor or masquerade in the title or blurb. Those words frequently indicate a book with humor.

Too much angst, frustrating characters (you want to shake some sense into them), a gothic atmosphere, poor writing, poor copy editing, or any number of other aspects of a book can overwhelm any humor that might be present. On the other hand, properly placed humor can lighten a book that might otherwise be unreadable or unappreciated. I believe the ending of a novel determines much of the overall "feel" of the book that we remember later. Since most romances have happy endings, this is a factor in their enjoyment. Even some books that are pretty poor overall are somewhat redeemed by a good ending. On the other hand, if a book starts well and goes downhill, it is much less likely to be kept or reread.

If one is really obsessive (or academic - a possible college project?), humor in romances can also be classified by type. A lot of humor is based on incongruity and unusual juxtapositions. Heyer's Black Sheep is a great example of conversational humor. Heyer's Sprig Muslin is situational humor. Dara Joy's High Energy has wonderfully funny characters. Another excellent example of character humor is Kasey Michael's The Tenacious Miss Tamerlane, including a secondary character who speaks only in quotations/aphorisms (with citation). (This character, Lucinda, is also in The Playful Lady Penelope and is a ghost in The Haunted Miss Hampshire.)

Character clashes are probably one of the most used sources of humor in romance, especially between hero and heroine (e.g., Heyer's Sylvester). Knocking the stuffiness out of a character is another variation with rich potential for humor, as shown in Heyer's The Grand Sophy and Kasey Michaels' recent Indiscreet. Cultural clashes can produce humor, as shown in Garwood's The Lion's Lady and most of her Scots books (The Bride, The Secret, etc.), and several of Rebecca Paisley's books. False impressions and mistaken identity also offer room for humor, as shown in Susan Andersen's Baby, I'm Yours or Sheila Rabe's An Innocent Imposter. Situational humor could be divided into slapstick/pratfall or milder forms. Wounding the hero produces a special subset of humor (not a wounded hero in the angst sense, more in the banana peel sense). Many books by Barbara Metzger, such as Lady in Green, do painful (but funny) things to the hero. (I used to call this battered men humor, but wounded heroes sound better.) Metzger's recent Miss Lockharte's Letters actually battered the heroine instead of the hero (a bit too much for my taste). All the above categorizations are actually oversimplifying, since most books include multiple types of humor, but they are a place to start.

For years I considered the pun the highest form of humor, since it was the only form I knew that was not based on someone's pain or discomfort (most situational humor is). Since I started reading humorous romances, I now consider conversational humor the highest form. I'm sure whole books could be (must have been) written on the nature of humor, but I normally don't analyze it while reading I just enjoy it.

Romance novels in a series often (but not always) get better as the series progresses. Sometimes, with authors whose first books make a series, it can be a sign of the author's increasing skill. Increasing reader familiarity with the characters and situations can also make later series books seem better. I use the word series somewhat loosely, including any set of books with any connected or continuing characters. Here are 4 examples of series in which I think the last book in the series is the best or funniest and one (Evanovich) with all books at a high level:

Sheila Rosalynd Allen (regency/ghost)The Reluctant Ghost
The Helpful Ghost
The Meddlesome Ghost
The Passionate Ghost


2 stars
3 stars
Janet Evanovich (contemporary)Back to the Bedroom
Smitten
Wife for Hire
The Rocky Road to Romance
5 stars
5 stars
4 stars
5 stars
Kay Hooper (contemporary/spy)In Serena's Web
Raven on the Wing
Rafferty's Wife
Zach's Law
The Fall of Lucas Kendrick
Unmasking Kelsey
Outlaw Derek
Shades of Gray
Captain's Paradise
It Takes a Thief
Aces High
2 stars
3 stars
2 stars
2 stars
2 stars
3 stars
1 star
1 star
1 star
1 star
4 stars
Emma Jensen (Regency Romance)Choice Deceptions
Vivid Notions
Coup de Grace
What Chloe Wants
1 star
3 stars
4 stars
5 stars
Jayne Ann Krentz (futuristic)Amaryllis
Zinnia

Orchid


4 stars

Humor is not incompatible with sex. Classical Regency Romances, in the genre established by Georgette Heyer (with very early precursors by Jane Austen), are expected to be comedies of manners. They will usually not have any explicit sex, though they can have varying degrees of sensuality and sexual tension. Most other genres of romance (historical romances set in the Regency or any other period, contemporary, romantic suspense, paranormal, futuristic, etc.) typically do have explicit sex to varying degrees. I have found plenty of funny romances in all the sub-genres (with the least in paranormal/futuristic). Some Regency purists posting online seem to think explicit sex spoils a comedy, but I have not found that to be the case. Inappropriate sex (not justified by characters and plot) spoils a book, not explicit sex. I have even read a few books with deliberately, not accidentally, funny sex scenes, though I can't remember any titles to cite at the moment. All of Heyer's Regencies are examples of humor with no explicit sex. Several of Cindy Holbrook's Regencies (A Rake's Reform, Lord Sayer's Ghost, The Actress & the Marquis) are examples of excellent humor with very high sexual tension but no explicit sex. Julie Garwood's The Lion's Lady and Amanda Quick's Ravished are examples of historicals set in the Regency period with excellent humor and explicit sex.

I know I am not the only person who looks for humorous romances. I have seen comments from other people on various lists with similar interests - if there are other sites or lists devoted to funny romance books and I have just missed them, please let me know the url(s) by emailing me here. Finally, I would like to request that all reviewers of romances mention the humor level in their reviews. A formal scale would be especially helpful, but even a mention in the body of a review would help.

LLB: To see Mark's favorite funnies, please link here - there is a return link back to this column from his list.

A Less Serious Look at Humor in Romance Novels:
Obviously Mark takes his humor very seriously, and he undoubtedly spends as much time on humor as I do on romance in general. For me, humor in romance is one of the things I look for, but it is not the be all and end all. Yes, nearly one half of the books on my all-time favorite keeper list are humorous ones, but the remainder are equally favored, and more of the intense-read variety.

While Mark looks at Regency Romance first for humor, I look to this sub-genre somewhat further down my list. As my appetite for this sub-genre continues to grow, it might move higher on my list, but for now, I look first for author, then setting (regency-set historical first, medieval next, contemporary third, and then Regency Romance), and then plot synopsis.

Mark's "historomance" and "mysteromance" are good terms for me - I always look for the romance to be primary when reading a romance. Some authors, such as Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick, and Suzanne Simmons, combine the two nearly seamlessly, but in many books, it is too easy to separate the history or the mystery from the romance. As with Mark, I don't find this a good thing. And, I agree with Mark in his comments on expectations. After reading Julia Quinn's Splendid, I expected her follow up to be equally as humorous. Others who did not read Splendid first but discovered Julia in Dancing at Midnight enjoyed it more than I did.

Many of my favorite romances combine humor and sex in a delightful way. Stella Cameron, known to many as using too much skanky sex in her romances, combined sex and wit wonderfully in Bride, as did Julie Garwood in my favorite romance, Castles.

In the very first issue of this column, I listed four romances which were among my most favorite funnies:

Left off this listing were two authors whose complete set of works had such a strong humorous component that, had I listed them, I would have overwhelmed the reader. Those two authors were and are Julie Garwood and Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz. In going through my library, I found several more romances that I thoroughly enjoyed (in the A to B range). They are as follows:

Author
Title
Grade
Mary Balogh The Famous HeroineB-
Leanne BanksMillionaire Dad
Expectant Father
The Five-Minute Bride
B-
B+
B
Patricia Cabot Portrait of My HeartB+
Stella Cameron BrideB
Catherine CoulterThe Wild BaronB-
Jennifer Crusie The Cinderella DealB
Christina Dodd A Well Pleasured LadyA
Jillian Hunter Fairy TaleA
Sharon Ihle The Bride Wore SpursB
Dara JoyHigh EnergyB+
Arnette LambHighland RogueB
Sandra LeeLove at First SightB-
Merline Lovelace The Tiger's BrideB+
Julia Quinn MinxB
Nora Roberts the MacGregor seriesB+
Deborah Simmons The Devil Earl *
The Last Rogue **
B+
A-

* Recommended read if you enjoyed Ravished by Amanda Quick
** Just read and added to my listing of all-time keepers

Each of these books has a strong humorous component. In some cases the book may also have a strong dramatic component as well; unlike Mark, I grade books on more than just humor, so some of my favorite funnies may also be two-hanky reads or what, on the surface, seems to be a more serious romance. Some of these titles may surprise you, but as I've said since the beginning:

"We love books that make us cry and make us tingle, but we also love a book that makes us laugh. Many authors attempt this, but not all do so successfully. Part of the enchantment we have with the regency historical is the wittiness of dialogue. We enjoy the topsy-turvy stories of love between humans and fairies/witches because we laugh at the ridiculous situations they find themselves in. We love reading about serious heroes whose lives are turned upside down by free-spirited heroines because their metamorphoses are just plain funny."
I'd like to add to that snippet, which appeared in the very first issue of this column. We also love slapstick, medieval romps with coarse and often vulgar humor, screwball comedies, and black comedies where we are won over by rakish heroes with a bit of an evil glint in their eyes.

The "P-Word":
As I mentioned at the outset of this column, Sandra Lee's debut romance, Love at First Sight, showed off her earthy sense of humor wonderfully well. Her coarse references to bodily functions, body parts, and bodily fluids worked better here than in nearly any other romance I've read before. She even introduced a couple of terms I'd never seen used before, which brings us to our latest topic, one which I'm calling the p-word.

Since I began writing this column, we've had discussions about sexuality in romance, including purple prose or what I deem silly sex (feel free to peruse the index for my columns for silly sex discussions). But there's a flip side to silly sex, and I'd like to talk about them together. The "p-word," of course, is penis. I've seen many words or phrases used in romance novels to describe the penis, including, very rarely, penis. Other words/phrases have included: his sex, manhood, erection, arousal, member (engorged or otherwise), manroot, c_ck, hard length of him, velvet steel, as stiff and hard as a pike, rod, tallywhacker, evidence of his masculinity, turgid shaft. There are more, of course, but these are some that spring immediately to mind.

For some reason, the word "penis" always makes me laugh. I laughed when I was a child learning the correct words for body parts, and sometimes it still makes me laugh. Author Susan Kay Law says that she doesn't like the word "penis" in love scenes because "It's such a whiney little word. Pee - Ness - Ick."

Mary Lynn disagrees. She says, "Penis is a perfectly lovely English word. I don't mind seeing it at all, and it's far less intrusive than the dread 'manroot'."

"Manroot" is a term I think Bertrice Small uses in every one of her books, and it's a word always guaranteed to make me laugh. Author Marsha Canham says, "Every time I read the word 'manroot' to describe a penis, I instantly visualize a crooked, carrot-like object with a long hairy root at the narrow end. And if I see the words 'throbbing manhood', I tend to throft the book then and there, or if a man 'mounts' a woman, or if that woman has a 'downy vulva'. As for the word 'poked,' the best I saw was 'poked her in her portal'."

The word "c_ock" is one I've read in medievals, other historicals, and contemporaries, and it is always a jarring term. It works best as a shocker, and when authors use it in love scenes, it takes me right out of the fantasy.

Author Jean Ross Ewing has seen "privy member" used; it was a legal term at one time. But the most "out there" phrase she's come across is "dangly bits". And, author Barbara Samuel aka Ruth Wind says, "For my own work, I still pretty much to 'member' or 'sex'. Penis doesn't bother me, but speaking purely from aesthetic terms, it's not a particularly nice word. 'Nipples' is another word that isn't particularly appealing. I end up using it more often than not simply because I can't think of any alternatives that don't sound silly."

Then, of course, there are the terms and phrases used for a woman's "nether regions." I don't think I've seen vagina used, but I have seen clitoris, which is just too clinical for me. Some other terms/phrases I've seen include: her portal of pleasure, her womanly curls (which I often see in my mind's eye as ringlets like those Shirley Temple wore - not a very arousing picture!), moist petals, dewy femininity, plump folds, woman's mound, and honeypot.

Victoria believes the worst phrase she's seen as a description of a woman's "private parts" is "mossy grotto" - she didn't care for it. Karen thinks the old standby "honeypot" is the "worst euphemism" she's ever read.

There is generally less description of "womanly regions burning with want" and the "savage burning in her exposed womanly area" than there are of men's aching, bursting loins, although great attention is paid to women's breasts in romance novels. Breasts have been known to throb, have pouting nipples or hard tips, and come in variety of sizes and shapes. Something that has always amazed me is the variety in color of nipples - some are rosy, others are peachy, still others are the colors of plums, raspberries, or strawberries. Sounds like a fruit salad, doesn't it?

And while there are many phrases for body parts, what about "the deed" itself? What comes to mind immediately are these phrases: "the dance as old as time," "filling her tight sheath," and "impaling himself into her femininity." (I won't even begin to get into the phrases used when the hero takes the heroine's virginity, but feel free to when it's time to post to the message board.)

About the culmination of "the deed," author Teresa Hill says, "I was very happy, as I was doing the galleys for my next book, to see that my heroine gets to 'come.' Actually, that my hero gets to talk about wanting to make her 'come.' No 'climax.' No other silly euphemisms for it. Honestly, does anyone ever say the word 'climax' in that context? I just can't see him giving her a wicked grin and saying, 'I want to make you climax.'" It's silly, but I think this is the first of my heroines who got to come. Ten books, and I finally have a heroine who's satisfied. "

The Message Board:
It's time to post to the message board again. Here are the questions I'd like you to consider responding to:

Humor in Romance - Where does humor rate on your list? Are you like Mark and look mostly for humor? Are you like me and gravitate towards humor but read a variety? Are you a romance reader who prefers more intense romance to humorous ones? If you are a humorous romance reader, how do you find witty reads? Do you prefer slapstick, sophisticated comedy, black humor, screwball comedies, or a variety? Please also consider going to our Special Title Listings and adding your own favorite funnies.

The "P-Word" Which words/phrases do you like to describe the male member (if you are going to indicate "d_ick" or "c_ock," please spell it as I did here)? Which words/phrases do you dislike/find funny/overused? The same goes for a woman's "femininity" and "the deed itself." Are some words inherently humorous or icky? What about "climax" versus "come?"

Is It Good Or Not? - This is left over from the last issue of the column. How forgiving are you when you read a romance which takes a turn for the worse, or features what reads like a padded sub-plot? Are you cranky like me, or are you more forgiving like Marianne?

Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
In conjunction with Mark Pottenger

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