AAR Staff Top Ten Favorites – Mary’s Picks

There is absolutely no possible way that I can trim my favorite romance novels down to ten. Therefore, I am going to take a page from other reviewers’ entries and exempt those written in the 19th century (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell). I am also going to state that Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is a given, but because the story continues and the end has not yet been written, it will be excluded from my top 10 list. I am also going to exclude A Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught, because Jenna included it her list and I would not want to be redundant. So…in no particular order and with the caveat that I could exchange some books on this list at any time, here is my qualified Top 10 list: Continue reading

Tying it up in a Bow

tiedupbowAs romance readers we like happy endings. I still remember the book that pushed me firmly away from historical fiction into the romance camp. The heroine was a New England ship captain’s wife. It started out with a romantic meeting and courtship, and ended with plummeting fortunes and marital discord. I closed the book and tried to think why I had wanted to read it in the first place, or why anyone would want to read it. If I’m reading for pleasure, I want it to end happily. But I have to wonder whether ending happily means it also has to end neatly.

Because we also complain about hackneyed epilogues. You know what I mean. It’s a year later, and the heroine has just given birth to the adorable heir (because I swear it is usually a boy). Our hero and heroine look at each other with gooey eyes and perfect happiness. There’s no hint that the baby in question might get sick, or their financial fortunes will undergo an abrupt reversal, or even that the beloved family dog will pee on the priceless Aubusson carpet. In other words, there’s no inkling that the hero and heroine are about to experience life as we know it. If there’s any hint of discord in an epilogue, it tends to be in the form of angst for the couple’s friend/relative/old school chum who will be featured in the next sequel. 

What got me thinking about this in the first place? I read two with slipshod endings, both of which read as if the author got sick of writing and just ended the book with little thought or planning. One I have reviewed (and panned) already – Dusk with a Dangerous Duke. In this gem, the story ends with the hero and heroine professing their love as a house burns down around them (after bickering the book away), after which someone (no one ever says who) breaks down the door and presumably puts the fire out. The happy couple walks pout the door to live happily ever after (one assumes) without helping put the fire out, thanking the rescuer, or appearing in a happy epilogue with a dimpled baby in tow.

The second book is one I’m about to review (better than the first, but not by much), which leaves an ending with plot holes big enough to drive a semi through. My personal favorite was the way the hero’s brother had been grazed by a bullet and thought he was Russian. He stills thinks he’s Russian at the end of the book. Or was it the heroine’s brother, who was apparently kidnapped by Indians and renowned for his fiery red hair? Everyone knew about him (except the heroine apparently - she’d been trying to find him for five years). I’m pretty sure these loose ends will be addressed in the next book – which I will definitely not be sticking around to read.

Is there a happy medium somewhere? A non-gooey epilogue? A sunny – bot not completely unrealistic - ending? One where loose ends are tied up satisfactorily but not too neatly? One I can think of recently the struck all the right notes was Cecelia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. The hero and heroine are happy, but their life is a modest one. Their immediate, pressing issues are resolved, but they aren’t exactly living in fabulous wealth  - or bouncing a baby on both arms.

What kind of ending strikes the right note for you? Do you like the ooey-gooey love and babies? Do you need everything tied up in a bow?

– Blythe Barnhill

AAR Staff Top Ten Favorites – Jean’s Picks

See, I knew that signing up for this blog would cause me a headache. How are you supposed to choose the top ten romances that rock your world? How? How? (At the back of my mind I have the Baha Men singing along, except it’s “How do you choose now? How, how, how, how?” Great. Hence the headache.)

Anyway, I figured the only way I can keep sane is a) recognize that I won’t hit them all, and b) acknowledge that if I am actually stuck on a desert island with only ten romance novels, I’d go crazy anyway, no matter what I chose. (Unless I chose, like, the Koran, Paradise Lost, and Journey to the West. Then maybe I’d not go all loopy.)

I decided that what I’d probably crave the most is variety, a little bit of every genre to suit every mood. It actually turned out to be relatively easy once I’d decided on this, looked at my Top 100 list, scanned my shelves, and sliced through the different categories. I’m happy with my choices – they’re all different in setting, subgenre, writing style, and character. I’ve also read each of them at least twice – I’m a serial re-reader, so I know when something works for me, when it doesn’t, and (most of important of all) when it stands up to the test of time. Continue reading

Finding Romance in Literary Fiction

heart_book I’ve heard it in various forms from many different corners. “Oh, literature is just too depressing.” “The difference between literary fiction and romance? Love stories in lit fic all end uphappily.” Stick around enough message forums and blogs, or simply talk to enough readers and you’ll hear variations on that theme. Then there are the the literary fiction “guidelines” Robin Uncapher wrote for AAR back in 2007, which definitely skewer certain authors and book trends rather aptly. But is all of it really that depressing for a romance reader?

I don’t read literary fiction all the time, but I’ll go on my occasional forays beyond the familiar genre fiction shelving. True, there are beautifully written but also tragic books such as The English Patient or Bel Canto, books full of ponderous words and perhaps an amount of pretension which seems to have an inverse correlation with the amount of actual plot action, and then there’s stuff that I quite frankly think is absolute dreck(Why do they shelve Nicholas Sparks with literary works? Why, why, why?) Continue reading

Speaking of Audiobooks: The Audie Finalists in Romance

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie Last June during June Is Audiobook Month, I penned a complaint here at Speaking of Audiobooks about the Audie Awards and how out of touch they were with the romance listening community. What are the Audie Awards? Sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association, they give recognition to those within the industry for excellence in narration, direction, and engineering. The 2013 awards gala is scheduled for May 30th this year.

Romance listeners in the past have talked very little about the Audie Romance Finalists here at Speaking of Audiobooks and at our Romance Goodreads group. Why pay attention to an awards ceremony that often doesn’t even fill the romance category with books actually categorized as romance? After all, the Romance winner in 2011(The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James) was categorized as general fiction. I understand that the list of romance finalists is not meant to be a statement of romance listeners’ favorites. However, generally those lists (and the winners) haven’t generated many warm fuzzies among the romance listening community. Continue reading

TBR Challenge 2013: You Made Me Read It

shadesmidnight This month’s TBR Challenge read is supposed to be one recommended by a fellow reader. In this case, I went for a 2003 paranormal historical(and RITA winner) recommended to me when I blogged about my hunt for something both romantic and creepy.

Shades of Midnight by Linda Fallon (aka Linda Winstead Jones) definitely fit the bill both for romance and for creepiness. This ghostly romance set in 1880s Georgia was one of those books that formed pretty vivid pictures in my mind. Though the book had its weak moments, lack of creepy atmosphere was not one of them and I would probably give it a B- if I were grading.

Here’s the setup: Lucien Thorpe has a gift for releasing earthbound spirits and when he receives a summons from Eve Abernathy to rid her house of a ghostly couple, he comes running. Lucien had stood Eve up altar a couple of years before, so things between them are strained at best. However, the compelling mystery of the ghosts in Eve’s home captivates them both and compels them to work together. All that Lucien and Eve know is that the home’s original occupants, Alastair and Viola Stamper, died thirty years before in a murder-suicide on Halloween night. Their spirits haunt the home, reenacting their last day alive, growing more vivid as Halloween approaches. Continue reading

What Are Your Desert Island Keepers?

desertisland-300x200 I have always been stingy with my A’s and I found with reviewing the expectancy of the grade weighs on me more. Why? Because I have been on the other side. In the past, my anticipation has skyrocketed over a five star or A rating, only to end in disappointment. My first experience with romance book ratings occurred with Romantic Times magazine. Now four and a half star ratings were fairly common but five stars or 4 1/2G only happened once in a blue moon. Upon seeing a five star review, I was determined to find the book come hell or high water. Just that rating had me pulling out my small discretionary income and buying it. It must be fabulous, because it got a five star rating. However, more often than not, I didn’t agree with the grades there, and was quite let down. Continue reading

Read Anything Interesting Lately?

Ever had one of those frustrating weeks where you just don’t get to curl up with a book as much as you’d like to? Yeah, me too. My day job pretty well ate my life last week and had me sitting in traffic all over northern Virginia as I went from appointment to appointment. On the plus side, I did get to catch up on blog reading in between all of the mad dashes and I found some interesting stuff over the past few days.

I like to read Jezebel every now and again because some of their writers do offer useful perspectives on women’s lives and they can be very supportive of women’s choices, history, literature and so on — except when they’re not. My general reaction to reading this article which somehow takes the idea of Jane Austen having both highbrow and lowbrow appeal and conflates it to the notion that her books are basically well-written Twilight. The author also takes care to get in a few slaps at modern romance authors, making sure to note that, “it goes without saying that Austen is way wittier and more talented than her modern day counterparts.” Continue reading

Buried Treasure Reads – 2012

With self-publishing and a proliferation of small presses dotting the landscape, I’m not surprised to see that 2012 yielded a rather varied list of buried treasures. We have a diverse group of reviewers and from the looks of things, they read a pretty diverse crop of books this year both for review and just for pleasure. Thankfully, that’s yielded a list of buried treasure books covering everything from the self-published to the books from major publishers that just didn’t seem to generate nearly as much buzz as we thought they deserved.

Started with the self-published, Dabney Grinnan really enjoyed the erotic novella, By His Desire by Kate Grey. I also had a fun self-published discovery. Mary Castillo’s romantic suspense novel, Lost in the Light has its weak points, but the mystery intrigued me and I appreciated how the author managed to make her heroine both sympathetic and very flawed. Continue reading

Reviewer’s Choice 2012

It’s that time again – the time of year when the AAR staff weighs in with our pick for best romance of the year. This column is a yearly event for me, and I’ve been writing it for so long that I couldn’t remember when I started writing it (so I checked. The answer? 2001! I couldn’t believe it either). I always enjoy hearing our staff gush, and I always find something I should have read already.  After reading Dabney’s top picks for this year, I’ve decided I need to read more novellas.

At the risk of sounding like an old lady who begins every sentence with “Back in my day…” I feel like we’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. Gone are the days when virtually half our staff voted for the same book (Suzanne Brockmann’s Over the Edge). We’re a diverse lot these days, and the highest number of votes any book got was two. And maybe I’m also becoming a pushover, but I let two reviewers make more than once choice. Sad to say, this was also a year when many of us didn’t feel like we had a lot of choices. Lots of us read good books, but had trouble coming up with great books. And that’s a trend I’d love to see turn around in 2013. Nonetheless, we picked our favorites and found books to recommend. If you missed any of these, read fast; our annual poll ends January 20 at midnight. Continue reading