Special Title Listings: The Bad Girls

spear_of_summer_grass Bad girl heroines hold a special fascination for many romance readers because these women go against the grain of what we expect in a romance in a number of ways. They are aggressive, they take the lead, they act selfishly or irresponsibly, and they may even be without remorse. They don’t mind using their charm and attraction for their own advantage, and they even use their bodies to get what they want. Often they are outcasts, be it from choice or from necessity. However, as many of them are strong, independent characters, they are highly interesting to read about.

There are several special title listings at AAR that contain such heroines.

The Tormented Heroines are at odds with their role in society, and this results in their acting against the rules of sweet and caring womanhood. They may be cynical, eccentric, manipulative, selfish, or any combination of these. In any case they are mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and it takes a very special hero to bridge their defenses and let them find happiness. With these heroines, it is often clear that even the happy ending is only a single step forward in a battle of wits that will last for and enrich their entire lives. No conventional happily-ever-after here! Continue reading

Oh, the Mary Sue

marysue Oh, the Mary Sue. Frequently the bane of my existence. The few books I actively hate have Mary Sue characters as the leads. But what is it about the Mary Sue that enrages so many readers? And what is it about her that many others really enjoy?

So first, who is Mary Sue? Well, you know you’re reading a Mary Sue novel if your heroine (or your hero, known to some as Gary Stu):

  • has no real faults as a person/characters, except those that are “adorable”

 

  • is liked or loved by every member of the desired sex (whether male or female)

 

  • is only hated or disliked by the bad guys or people who are jealous

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Just Not My Type

gypsyheiress Do you ever find certain types of characters difficult to like? I wouldn’t say that any particular type of hero or heroine is completely a “no go” for me. I firmly believe that, in the hands of a good author, just about anything can be made to work. However, when I come across certain character types on a book blurb, the description is not going to have me clamoring to pick up the book – often because it’s something I’ve seen handled less than skillfully way too many times before.

Pirates definitely fall into that category for me. I don’t know if it’s my background of having studied European and Middle Eastern history, but nothing I know about pirates makes them terribly romantic to me. Most historical accounts I have read make them sound uneducated and brutal, and conditions onboard ship sound filthy and unappealing. While I will admit that Jennifer Ashley’s pirates worked for me, the first pirate hero I remember encountering came in Joanna Lindsey’s somewhat infamous A Pirate’s Love. If you look up “rapey ‘hero’” in the dictionary, you just might find an image of Tristan there.

Other pirate/privateer novels I read over the years tended to have similar issues. However, even among the ones that didn’t feature rapist “heroes,” I just couldn’t move beyond the difficult life of a pirate to see the story as particularly romantic. Various authors, including Meagan McKinney, wrote pirates or privateers that one could consider dashing, but Jennifer Ashley was the first author I found who managed to humanize that sort of hero and make him truly appealing.

On the heroine side, while I haven’t found too many in recent novels, I used to run across gypsy heroines in older books and I have to admit that they have yet to work for me. As any of us who cut their teeth on Barbara Cartland novels knows, Cartland had a huge interest in gypsy culture that extended to founding several gypsy camps in England. This interest seems to have extended to a hugely romanticized view of gypsies in her novels. Continue reading

Updated Special Title Lists – Suspense & Mystery, and Heroes in Pursuit

newimproved As we said several weeks ago, we were simply bombarded with submissions when we opened these two lists up for your nominations, with over 150 recommendations for each. We have now posted the revised lists at AAR, but have a few issues to raise as you’ll see below.

Suspense & Mystery List. We’re afraid that the Suspense & Mystery list – as currently constituted – may have outlived its usefulness. This list was created in 1997, long before the power search was available at AAR. We believe that the Special Title Lists should provide something different than the power search feature. For example, we don’t have a Special Title list for Medieval Historicals or European Historicals or Contemporary Romances. So does it make sense to have a Special Title list with part of its definition as Romantic Suspense? We don’t think so, but we’d like your thoughts. Continue reading

Heroines and Aging: A Bit Painfully

birthdaycakecandles Back in July of 2006, Robin Uncapher wrote an At the Back Fence column (#232) that is so timely for me as to be kind of eerie. She discussed the role age plays on romance novels: in who buys them, in how the age of the heroine is perceived, in what is considered acceptable versus creepy…well, just go read the article because I’m not doing it justice.

This particular topic is timely because next week I will celebrate my birthday. I’ll confess that this particular one shifts me closer to fifty than to forty, and if I think on it too long, I tend to get a big panicky. I know I’m still in the prime of my life, hopefully with at least another four or five decades to go. To call myself ‘old’ is as insulting and ridiculous as the size 2 supermodel calling herself fat. Continue reading

Secondary Romances and Risk-Taking

mcnaught I just finished Judith McNaught’s Someone to Watch Over Me, and the main characters are… fine. He’s a bazillionaire who’s loved her for a long time. She’s a successful Broadway actress who doesn’t trust his criminal past. Like I said, they’re fine, with all the faint-praise-damning and forgettability that that word generally implies. But the book will end up on my keeper shelf anyway, because the secondary romance between Detective Samantha Littleford and and her superior, Lieutenant Mitchell McCord, is just too good not to reread.

What made Samantha and McCord so enjoyable? I love office romance/off-limits attraction plot devices because they put up plausible barriers to the couple’s courtship. As the senior police officer, McCord can’t express any feelings towards Samantha without running afoul of every procedure and regulation in the book. Consequently, he’s so self-contained that Samantha can’t even tell if he likes her. Continue reading

Can You Hear Me Now? – An Open Letter to Romance Authors

5843405057_af77f6bfb4 Dear Writers of Romance Novels,

Most of you are aware that one over-used source of conflict in a fictional relationship that drives nearly all readers absolutely batty is the Big Misunderstanding. You know the trope. The hero or heroine witnesses something or overhears something or is told something that leads him or her to a wrong conclusion about his/her love interest. Rather than confront the potentially wayward lover as soon as possible to ask her/him to explain the situation, the discussion never happens and the romance grinds to a complete halt. Too often, this Big Misunderstanding drags on and on to the point of ridiculousness, causing the reader to want to shake the fictional characters silly and throw the book at the wall.

The problem with the Big Misunderstanding these days is not so much that they happen – people frequently do jump to the wrong conclusions – it’s that the conversation it would take to clear things up is so easily arranged. At least in historicals or any story set before telephones, the character who gets the wrong idea can flounce off the scene in a snit, making a soul-cleansing heart-to-heart chat much harder to happen until their unjustly maligned partner physically hunts them down. Continue reading

Sisters…Nailed It!

sisterEvery romance needs a hero and heroine, but sometimes a secondary relationship is so striking, so interesting, that it almost steals the show. Pride and Prejudice is, of course, about Elizabeth and Darcy. But it’s about Elizabeth and Jane too. Some of the best moments and the best dialog are about them, and about their relationship and their differences. Series and stories involving siblings are a dime a dozen, but books that really nail sibling relationships are a lot rarer. We see a lot more Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (with its very surface relationships…Bless her beautiful hide!) than we see the Bennett girls.

When someone gets it right, it feels like a bonus. My recent favorite is Courtney Milan’s novella, The Governess Affair. It is of course about a governess and a former boxer turned finance man of sorts. But it’s also about sisters. Serena (the titular governess) is the bolder sister who, after she is raped by the Duke of Claremont, stations herself outside his home every day, vowing to keep her vigil until he agrees to support her child. Her sister Frederica is basically agoraphobic. Frederica can’t understand why Serena takes so many risks. Serena can’t understand how Frederica can live like she does – or how it is even living. They love each other, though they don’t understand each other. Toward the end of the story, Serena thinks:

Maybe Freddy would always think Serena strangely broken, and Serena would always cringe, thinking of her sister ensconced in her rooms, slowly turning to stone. There was no convincing each other, no understanding each other.

But when Serena had most needed it, her sister had given her a place to stay. For all that Freddy made her stomach hurt, they still shared an affection made bittersweet by all that divided them. Perhaps God gave one sisters to teach one to love the inexplicable.

I was so struck by the last line that I texted it to my own sister – something I’m pretty sure I’ve never done before. She’s an artist, with all the creativity, originality, and free-spiritedness that implies. We love each other but tend to see life differently. I’m not sure she’s ever understood, for example, why anyone would spend years writing about romance novels when one could spend years writing romance novels (though she’s stopped saying that…at least out loud). We found common ground over the Milan quote, which she liked as much as I did. It was more insight than I’d bargained for in a novella.

While I have seen authors handle easy, companionable sibling relationships well (Nora Roberts comes to mind here, but there are others), I was hard-pressed to think of books that really went below the surface, or delved into more complicated sibling relationships. Who can you think of who “gets” the sibling relationship and does it right?

Total aside about sibling differences: I could tell you every detail of the t-shirt my sister is wearing in the picture above, but I’d be very surprised if she could (remembering things from thirty years ago is more in my wheelhouse). Although you can’t see it, it has Snoopy on it – in sunglasses, throwing a frisbee. It was the last one of its kind in the BYU bookstore, and she got it in a fair-and-square coin toss. I had to settle for the much less cool one with Snoopy sleeping on his house. It’s okay – now that it’s been thirty years, I’ve decided to let my resentment go.

Casting Romance Heroes (Again)

castingcall A friend and I who both love Kristen Ashley’s books have recently made a game of casting her romance heroes with actors from television and movies. That made me wonder about whom our reviewers have cast in their minds while reading their favorite romance novels. We’ve chatted about this a little bit before in the context of the AAR Top 100 Poll, but when I polled my fellow reviewers I still received some answers that surprised me. The general concensus was that we prefer not to cast romance heroes with known actors, and further that too much description was undesirable. Continue reading

Green Romance – A New Special Titles List?

An environmentalist myself, I like to read about other environmentalists. Folks who care about nature and who are prepared to adapt their lifestyle so as to deal with it more carefully are almost automatically likeable to me. Which is why I really enjoy them as heroes or heroines in my romance reading. Considering how big a topic the environment is in real life, it is quite astonishing, however, that environmental protection does not play a particularly large role in the world of romance. Now one might argue it is not sexy – after all, what’s sexy about getting double glazing or riding a bike? – but protecting the environment is caring, is looking beyond one’s own pleasure, and that to me is one of the core themes of romance.
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