Issue #86 (January 1, 2000)

AAR Reviewer Robin Nixon Uncapher Guests

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1999 Buried Treasures

This is the time of year that many of us take stock of what we have been reading and start thinking about votes for best of the year. Since I just began reading romance in earnest a year ago, I read many books older books that won't be competing for best of 1999. I also read many books by the most popular romance authors. There were great offerings from Julie Garwood, Mary Jo Putney, Mary Balogh and Nora Roberts, all of whom are favorites.

As of this writing, I read 124 books in 1999. This is about two and a half times as many books as I read the previous year when I read mostly literary fiction and historical biographies. Forty of the books were new. I read 33 Regency Romances, 37 historicals set in the regency, and another 33 historicals that were medievals, American historicals, Victorian historicals, or some other form of historical romance. I read only 18 contemporaries which included mystery/suspense like JD Robb's In Death series.

Overall, I think my first big year of reading romance was as much fun for me as it is for most readers when they truly discover romance. One great thing about discovering romance late is being able to find lots and lots of your favorite writers. I glommed and glommed. Completing my collection of Carla Kelly Regencies was satisfying, but I couldn't stop there. I discovered Mary Balogh and the Amazon auctions. I combed the bookstores and thrift shops for Kinsale, Kleypas, Jo Beverley, and Jean Ross Ewing. The day I found Deborah Simmons' first novel, I almost kissed the lady at the thrift shop. Like some Pavlovian dog, I went back again and again and found treasures by Julia Quinn, Connie Brockway, Jane Ashford and Mary Jo Putney. I complained to the librarian that they were throwing away collectable romance novels (by selling them for a quarter) only to have her look at me with the smug assurance that she was speaking to a lunatic. Oh well, I warned them, I thought, as I walked out happily with two shopping bags of books by Mary Jo Putney, Dara Joy and Sharon and Tom Curtis.

My luck with new books was, understandably, not as impressive as when I accessed my towering pile of Desert Isle Keepers. Certain sub-genres, Regencies in particular, have lost some major talents who have either gone on to write historicals or have taken a break from the business. Although Regency Romances are still a lot of fun, it was a sad year in the sub-genre without a new Mary Balogh (traditional Regency) or Carla Kelly to peruse.

I was curious about how the other AAR staffers saw 1999. One thing that makes being a reviewer unique is that you review a fair number of romances "at random." Does this make one's impressions of the year in romance different? I'm not sure. I asked them to comment on their reading year of 1999. I asked each of them: "How many books did you read last year? If you have any idea, I'd love to know how many historicals, Regencies, contemporaries, etc." Not everybody keeps track of these things, but I found the answers interesting.

Claudia wrote: "I read about 150, give or take a few. About a third were contemporaries, another five were Regency Romances, and the remainder were historical romances, many of them set in the regency period."

AAR columnist Carol wrote: "I keep no records whatsoever and read a bit of everything from every subgenre except time travel romances. I read at least four or five books a week.

Blythe Barnhill kept meticulous records. She wrote:

"I read 135 books in 1999, not counting the few books I reread. Of those, I reviewed 107 of them, and they were almost all published this year, or will be published next year.

"As far as categories of books go, the numbers look like this:

  • 25 contemporaries or romantic suspense
  • 16 Regency Romances
  • 29 American Historicals
  • 33 European Historical Romances/Medieval Romances
  • 22 Non-romances - women's fiction/mystery/non-fiction
  • 6 Series Romances
  • 3 Time Travel/Paranormal Romances."

Then I asked if there were any big changes in their reading/reading tastes? Did they find themselves reading more SF, for example, or more Americana?

Claudia wrote:

"I am headed toward more adult heroines, I think you see that in my reviews, I don't have much patience for childlike, immature heroines. Probably because I'm getting older, too. I Find myself abandoning Garwood and Quick, whom I read a lot when I started reading romance, and I didn't read Ransom when it came out, or the last 3 Quicks. I have lost patience for some bigger-name authors and will not read them anymore. Genre-wise, I have always been fascinated by European historicals, love the gowns, the mansions, but I will pretty much read anything, futuristic to medieval, burning sensuality to subtle tenderness."

Carol had a different take. She loves to go to our Desert Isle Keeper page for books to read, but sometimes gets off onto tangents based on a book there which might catch her interest. For example, when AAR Reviewer Jennifer Keirans raved about Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover, Carol started glomming romance-SF, but has "done limited reading of that glom pile yet." As she noted in the most recent Pandora's Box, she "needs something to get away from all the dukes and earls and billionaire cowboys." One thing she's done is begun to read more Regency Romances, after reading my own DIK Review of Michelle Martin's The Mad Miss Mathley. Carol said she's working her way "through everything on DIK page. I am glomming the whole DIK list and have got most of it." Even though many tastes - authors, readers, reviewers - are reflected on our DIK Reviews page, Carol has found this to be a fabulous source. Even though she and AAR Publisher Laurie Gold rarely agree on anything, let alone books they love, Carol has enjoyed every book Laurie has given DIK Status - she may not have loved them, but she liked them.

For Blythe, who started reviewing mid-way through 1998, this first full year of reviewing has meant more new books and more new authors to try. She found that the biggest changes for her were that she read "more contemporaries and more Regency Romances. While I read more Regencies, I found them generally more disappointing than I had hoped - very few of those 16 were any good at all, and I mostly selected ones I thought would be promising." While Blythe has long been a fan of Mary Balogh and Emma Jensen, finding other good Regency authors has been difficult for her.

Blythe was surprised to discover that she had read nearly as many American Historical Romances in 1999 as European Historical Romances. All those average to less-than-average American Historicals have faded in her memory, leaving few good ones to savor. Perhaps because she is a student of American History, she tends to be more picky. Whatever the reason, this was not a great year for Blythe and American Historical Romances.

Thinking about the best books of 1999 got me wondering about the really great books that I might have missed. With that in mind I asked my fellow reviewers what they thought were the best forgotten books of 1999. Laurie mentioned a number of these in her recent column. I thought it was interesting to see which names popped up repeatedly. One great thing about these books is that they are still in print and can be ordered if they are not found on bookstore shelves.

I didn't ask people to give me a specified number of any category. It was interesting to see that so many of the suggestions were for historicals. I liked many of these books myself, and noted my favorites wherever I could.

Best Buried Medieval Romances


My Beloved by Karen Ranney - This unusual book was my favorite medieval of the year and it also contains my favorite tortured hero, Sebastian. He is really tortured. Why? It's a secret. In her DIK Review, Anne Marble wrote, "Ms. Ranney has done an incredible amount of research and has been able to incorporate the medieval world flawlessly into the story."

The Maiden & the Unicorn by Isolde Martyn - This is a gritty medieval romance. AAR Reviewer Colleen McMahon wrote: "Isolde Martyn has not only created a compelling love story between a wonderful hero and heroine. She also portrays the complicated dynastic plottings behind the 15th century Wars of the Roses in a way that makes the history come alive."

Bartered Bride by Anne Avery - AAR Reviewer Katarina Wikholm awarded this book DIK Status. She wrote, "It features a non-aristocratic hero who lives by his wits rather than by his brawn, a sensible heroine, a marriage of convenience and plenty of historical detail. Oh, did I mention that the married couple doesn't quarrel much before they fall joyously into bed?"

Dawnflight by Kim Headlee - This is a retelling of the myth of Arthur and Guinevere with a twist. Guinevere is a strong warrior in this version. Anne wrote in her review, "Unlike most retellings of the Arthur tale, this is more a historical novel than a fantasy."

Best Buried Regency Romances


Cupid's Kiss by Karen Harbaugh made our list. It was Blythe's favorite Regency Romance for the year. Her review of the book says, "In Cupid's Kiss, the final installment in Harbaugh's trilogy, the hero is Eros - the Greek god of love. Not every author would be able to make such a story work, but this story is delightful, humorous, and just plain fun."

The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb South - AAR Reviewer Nora Armstrong wrote of this book, in her review, "This was a delightful read from start to finish, reminiscent of the writing that made me fall in love with Regencies all those years ago. A mismatched couple, a marriage of convenience, and a few twists to keep the audience on its toes add up to a thoroughly satisfying read."

AAR Reviewer/Editor Ellen Micheletti had three favorite Regencies for our list. Topping her list would be Diane Farr's Fair Game, the story of a romance between the daughter of a courtesan and the son of a clergyman. In our discussions, Ellen described this as "one of the best, if not the best of the bunch." She also enjoyed June Calvin's Seige of Hearts, a variation on the Cinderella story, and Andrea Pickens A Hired Hero, which she described as "a regency historical in Regency Romance disguise."

Best Buried European Historical Romances


There were so many great historicals this year that it's hard to know where to start. When I asked other AAR Reviewers for their suggestions of lesser known but wonderful historicals, these titles were mentioned most often:

The Black Angel by Barbara Samuel (aka Ruth Wind) - A number of reviewers (myself included) loved this regency-era historical about an arranged marriage between an Irish rogue and "ruined" spinster. AAR Reviewer/Editor Ellen Micheletti said it best: "The characters are wonderful and she uses the plot to examine racial and religious prejudice as well as the double standard without ever getting preachy. Fans of her Ruth Wind series romances should look this one up."

My False Heart by Liz Carlyle - This is another regency-era historical. It's a big book about a dissolute rake who aims to reform when he meets not only the woman of his heart, but her charming and loveable family. In her review, Colleen McMahon wrote, "If I had to equate reading My False Heart to a culinary experience, it would be that of making real hot chocolate, beginning with milk in a saucepan and real cocoa, ending with a big fluffy marshmallow, then sitting under a blanket on the couch with a mugful, watching the fire in the hearth."

Stolen Charms by Adele Ashworth - This Victorian historical is exciting, unusual and complicated. Heroine Natalie Haislett persuades antiques dealer Jonathan Drake to take her to France and introduce her to the legendary Black Knight. The writing in this book is so light and clever that the passionate love scenes take you by surprise. In describing the book in her review, Ellen wrote, "Stolen Charms is beautifully written and has fantastic main and secondary characters."

The Proposition by Judith Ivory - The book takes the Pygmalion story and turns it upside down. The heroine takes the Henry Higgins role and sets out to turn the cockney hero into a gentleman. Ellen strongly recommended this book as one of the best of 1999. In her DIK Review she wrote, "The book is simply full of scenes that are tender and comic, with the smallest touches of conflict and reflection - just enough to keep it from becoming too sweet."

Strangers at Dawn by Elizabeth Thornton - This book begins with the murder trial of heroine Sara. She is being relentlessly pursued by a tabloid newspaper for the murder of her brother-in-law, with whom she is known to have had an affair. Although Laurie Gold, who found Thornton's book fizzled roughly mid-way through, gave it a grade of C, some of our readers loved it, as did Carol.

Best Buried American Historical Romances

The one book who was repeated named amongst our staff was Laura Lee Gurhke's Breathless. This turn-of-the-century romance involves a divorcee and the lawyer who won the case for her ex-husband. In her DIK Review, Anne wrote, "The turn of the century is a setting not often found in romance novels. Perhaps if more authors wrote books like Breathless, that would change."

To Kiss a Texan by Jodi Thomas was one of Blythe Barnhill's favorites. In her review, Blythe said, "If you've been avoiding Westerns because they were all starting to sound the same, give this one a try. I would particularly recommend it to fans of Maggie Osborne and Lorraine Heath, who write in a similar style. "

Star Keeper by Patricia Potter - This American historical has an unusual Revolutionary War setting. The romance is between a wounded patriot and a Tory woman. Blythe enjoyed this book and wrote the following in her review, "Star Keeper is an exciting, fast-paced book, and there is much more to the plot than the little I've revealed here. All the action really makes the pages fly."

Best Buried Contemporary Romances


Taming the Night by Paula Detmer Riggs came up a few times. This intense book features Dr. Summer Laurence, who is looking for a place to start a group drug rehabilitation facility, and Sheriff Brody Hollister, who is dead set against her plans. The realism for her lead characters of their pain, as well as the strong secondary characters put it over the top for Ellen.

Skin Deep by Kathleen Cross. This is a multicultural romance with a biracial heroine. AAR Reviewer Colleen wrote in her DIK Review, "In addition to making me really think about issues of color lines (both outside and within the African-American community), Skin Deep makes it pleasant to tackle these serious issues by wrapping them in a fast-paced, warm, suspenseful and romantic story." Other buried contemporaries included: Family Affairs by Sandra Kitt, Summer's End by Kathleen Gilles Seidel, and Romeo & Julia by Annie Kimberlin.

"Other" Romances - Time Travel/Paranormal/Ghosts. . .


Nell by Jeanette Baker - Both Blythe and Nora gave this unusual time travel set in Northern Ireland DIK Status. Nora wrote, "This is not a typical paranormal romance. Neither of the women really experiences life in the other's time; more than ghosts, less than people, they hover on the edge of living. These are really two separate yet interwoven tales, and Baker braids them together masterfully"

The Promise by Donna Boyd. Carol and AAR Editor Sandi Morris were both enthralled by this modern-day werewolf story. And, in her DIK Review, Laurie Shallah wrote, "The Promise immediately thrusts the reader into a dark, dangerous and emotionally gripping experience. This is a meaty book that spans centuries as it bounces back and forth between modern times and the past." (The Promise is the sequel to Boyd's equally gripping 1998 release, The Passion.

Bad Karma by Theresa Weir - This was another popular choice. People who like Theresa Weir seem to love Theresa Weir. In her DIK Review, Anne wrote, "Bad Karma is about a psychic. Wait, don't run away yet. It's by Theresa Weir, and it avoids the usual cliches. How often do you read a paranormal novel where the psychic pretends to be a fraud? Or a romance novel where the heroine has an eating disorder?"

Best Buried Series Romances


Knight in a White Stetson by Claire King - This book was granted DIK Status by AAR Reviewer Andrea Pool, but Ellen raved about how delighted she was to find this author as well. "I want to especially mention two authors whose books I think really are buried treasures since they write series romances. One is Claire King whose Silhouette Intimate Moments title Knight in a White Stetson is a gem. When Andrea sent me the review to edit, she was so enthusiastic about the book that I went out and bought it myself. I agree with review 100%. This is a wonderfully funny and charming story and Claire King is on my 'automatic buy' list."

For a Good Time, Call by Trish Graves (aka Trish Jensen) - Ellen was very enthusiastic about this book as well. Of the book, she wrote,"For a Good Time, Call, won the New Jersey RWA Golden Leaf Award, very nice for a book sold only at Wal-Mart! It too, is funny and charming. I really enjoyed it. Trish is the author of my all time favorite Harlequin Love and Laughter title - The Harder they Fall. Others may worship Jennifer Crusie, but Trish is my favorite in the romantic comedy arena.

Summing Up


The books of 1999 made me very happy that I discovered romance. I can't think of another time in my life when I have been more in love with books. For a lifetime bookie, that's saying something.

I loved the way Claudia summed up the year. She wrote:

"In general, although I am disappointed about young-brained heroines and writers wanting to be seen as more mainstream, it was a great reading year. Some authors went buh-bye for me, and some were welcomed to my keeper shelves with much fanfare, like The Nora, of course, the Bevs (Elizabeth Bevarly and Jo Beverley), Janet Evanovich, Diana Gabaldon, Stephanie Laurens, Loretta Chase (the first book I read this year was Lord of Scoundrels - what a way to start off 1999!), Robin Schone, Anne Avery, Connie Brockway, all of them and others I probably forgot made this year wonderful."

My own favorite romance buried treasures of the year were all Regency Romances and European Historicals. Perhaps it is my degree in American history that gets in the way, but its a rare American Historical that passes muster with me. I've only read one that I would rate as a keeper - Danelle Harmon's 1998 The Beloved One. Though I've greatly enjoyed some contemporaries, they rarely strike the chord that the best historicals and Regencies hit.

The books I personally recommend to people are mentioned above, particularly Adele Ashworth's Stolen Charms, Barbara Samuel's The Black Angel, Liz Carlyle's My False Heart, and Karen Ranney's My Beloved. I also greatly enjoyed Jean Ross Ewing's Flowers Under Ice and have glommed her wonderful Regency Romances, which I highly recommend.

One book that I loved, which is probably even more buried than any other book here, is Nell Brien's A Veiled Journey. This book is not listed above because it is not really a romance. It is the story of a woman doctor's year in Saudi Arabia. For some reason, MIRA is selling this book as a romance and I fear that many readers will be disappointed for that reason. Please give it a try anyway. A Veiled Journey will keep you on the edge of your seat and make you think long and hard about what it means to be a woman. Reading this book is an unforgettable experience.

A good friend of mine, who seldom reads romance, told me that what comes through in my romance reviews is a sense of wonder at the books I read. I'm delighted that she said that because it expresses quite well the way I felt when I read some of the best books that came my way. Who could not feel a sense of excitement when reading Mary Jo Putney's Shattered Rainbows for the first time or be shocked and delighted by the grittiness of Eve Dallas? Not me.

Happy New Year, everyone. I'm looking forward to great reading in the new millenium.

Time to Post to the Message Board:

How many books did you read last year? How many historicals, Regencies, contemporaries, etc?

Of the books you read, roughly how many of the books were new? Was this different from past years?

Were there any big changes in your reading or reading tastes? Did you find yourself reading more science fiction, for example, or more Americana?

Did you see any big trends in romance novels? Do you think anything new is happening? Is anything getting better? Worse?

Are there any new writers that you just love? Old writers you discovered?

Robin Nixon Uncapher

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