2012 Reading Year So Far: Chick List and Women’s Fiction

Last week we featured a sneak peek at 2012 debut authors. This time, I’m taking an early look at Chick Lit and Women’s Fiction for 2012, a category that at times has been a bit of a problem in the Annual Reader Poll at AAR. Some years we pollsters wonder if we’ll have enough votes for any single title to declare a winner. This wasn’t the case in the 2012 AAR Reader’s Poll for books published in 2011, when Jill Mansell’s To the Moon and Back was the winner in the category. A number of 2011 books captured readers’ attention and received quite a few votes in the category.

But in other years we’ve had more problems. First, a lot of AAR readers avoid both genres and leave the category blank on their ballot. Now this isn’t a problem for the readers; I tend to have a number of blank categories on my ballot each year as well (Biggest Tearjerker, Best Love Scenes, Best Romantica/Erotica to name just a few).

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Serial TV and Books: Another Perspective

sherlock1The other day on After Hours, I blogged about my love for the TV show Sherlock, and remarked it’s basically the only TV I watch, and like.  This is not the first time I’ve made the remark, online or in person, and 99% of the time, people probably look at me like I’m nuts, pompous, or both.

I once had a conversation with my friend about True Blood (I flatter myself that I converted her to the books, even though I haven’t read them), and we had this conversation about me not watching TV.  “Wait – you don’t watch TV, I accept it, even if I don’t get it (because there are some damn good shows on TV, Jean, and you’re missing out, but never mind because you’re weird).  But you haven’t read the books?  How can you read romance and not read the Sookie Stackhouse series?”

Good question, Eva.  And looking through my bookshelf, reading history, and preferences, I think I’ve narrowed it down.  It’s not series that I don’t do, per se – it’s the serialized, episodic, plot and character development surrounding a central cast of characters over a long period of time that I can’t stick with.

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The New Christmas Shopping

giftbooks Once upon a time, in an economy much better than the one we have today, going out of business sales were a gleeful event for me. I would cheerfully scavenge through the picked over aisles looking for hidden treasures and incredible “steals”. I do my Christmas shopping all year long, so many of my finds were put carefully away to be lovingly wrapped in December. Oh, how thrilled I was to be able to provide gorgeous gifts at a discounted price. Of course this was back in the days when it seemed that most going out of business sales meant either the shop had been mismanaged or the owners were retiring. Most of the ones I shopped were due to the latter reason and so there was joy all around. They were happy to unload the unwanted merchandise, I was happy to snap it up at bargain price.
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Organizing (and Playing) With Books

list I’ll admit it: I like to play with my books. I have far too many books. And as with most of us, that means I have storage problems. Over the years I have tried dozens of different methods to organize them – keeping them in bins by author, by genre, by subgenre – and yet for all the brilliance of the plans, for all the hours I put into said plans, I have yet to find a permanent solution. Right now, my books are loosely stored by type in plastic bins in my basement. Mary Balogh books have received their own bin but the rest are stored pretty willy nilly . The only thing I make sure of is that the bins are well sealed. I don’t want mold or damp or some similar book damaging pestilence to get at them.
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A Reader Versus a Bibliophile

EscribanoI like orange juice.  I really like orange juice.  But I sure don’t make a habit of learning about the properties of citric acid and optimal growth conditions for Tropicana Florida oranges.  And I’m cool with that.

But I can’t apply the same to books.  Not the ignorance about the production of such an item, but my complacency about it.  I’m not talking about the words – I’m talking about the pulp.  The sawn, milled, pulped, compressed, printed pages glued between embossed cardboard.  That, my friends, is as far as I know about the physical shell protecting the tales I love.

Which is why I’m a reader, but not a bibliophile.  See, I throw my old books on the ground.  I bend their pages.  I don’t dog-ear them (except, very occasionally, for the really crappy ARC when I need to remember a particularly excruciating turn of phrase), but I stretch the spines.  And new books?  I treat them carefully, but I don’t bend over backwards to keep them pristine.  Just doesn’t happen.

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The Best of Both Worlds

booksebooks Development is a natural part of any civilization, but I think most people accept that the past few decades have blown the other millenia out of the water.  I swear, I blink and my cell phone grows another set of eyes.

However, I’m also hearing observations about trends in reverse – call it part of the back-to-basics movement.  I think it’s already in full force with our overt concern for the environment.  Line-drying, not drying machines; cooking at home vs. eating at Applebee’s; stay-cations vs. vacations.  And it crosses over into family values and education – I’m hearing a lot of calls for tough love, rather than cosseting.  (And in the meantime, our grandparents slap their foreheads and think, “Duh.”)  The recession undoubtedly played a big part; history shows that generally, in tough times, people get nostalgic and want to do what their gramps did, politically, socially, and economically.

And culturally, what did gramps do?  Well, for one thing, he listened to the radio, and if he could afford it, he listened to LPs.  A decade ago, CDs were in, cassettes were out, and LPs were absolutely dead.  Now the music aficionados are pumping their fists in the air, because LPs are Cool with a capital C.  They’re no longer relegated to secondhand and niche music stores – HMV, the biggest Canadian music chain store, carries a significant section of LPs, and artists like Radiohead and Coldplay release new albums on those crazy 33 ½” vinyls.

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Long Buried Treasures

crocodile-on-the-sandbank-186x300Each year AAR features a list of staff members’ buried treasures for the past year. In last year’s blog announcing our 2009 buried treasures, Lynn described them as  “the books that we really liked this year that just didn’t seem to get nearly as much attention as we thought they deserved.”  While tabulating your votes for AAR’s 2010 Top 100 Poll, I’ve been reminded that many of us not only have buried treasures for a particular year, some of us actually have much-loved, and frequently re-read books that no one else seems to know about.

As we wrote when publishing our 2007 Top 100 Poll, 2,784 titles, or 56% of all the titles readers voted for, appeared on only one ballot. That’s a lot of books that only one AAR reader loved enough to place on their ballot. After looking over ballots for the first weeks of this cycle, I’m confident that we’ll have similar numbers again of books appearing on only one ballot.

Each time I prepare my Top 100 ballot (and I’ve voted in each one), I face the same quandary:  Should I vote only for titles that I think have a chance of placing in the top 100 (or even the top 200), or do I genuinely vote for my favorites? And each time, I just go with my favorites, no matter where I think they’ll end up. Before the 2007 poll, I figured if nothing else, some unknown pollster would read my selections, and know that someone out there loved those books. Now, as a pollster, I know that Lee or Cindy (Cindy this year) will at least know about the books that I think are wonderful.

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Independence Day

DC4th For our American readers and AAR folks, yesterday was Independence Day and many of us are enjoying the day off today. As always around this time of year, I find myself thinking about Revolutionary War history and realizing that I haven’t read much fiction set during this time period. For such a time of new beginnings and hopefulness, it would seem to be the perfect setting for a romance. It’s a shame more authors don’t use it.

Over email, other folks at AAR and I got to discussing our favorite colonial and American Revolution-set novels. Though few of us had not read much set during these time periods, most of us both in the USA and overseas had particular favorites we remember warmly. It would appear that while we may not find many books with these settings, the ones we do find stand out.

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Into the Glom

clip-art-library-booksHow often do you find yourself in the middle of a fixation on the works of one particular author and feel, for a little while at least, that you just can’t get enough?  In other words, do you glom?

Goodness knows I do and the results run the gamut between eternal love and agonizing avoidance.  For me these gloms always start out simple enough; I’ll pick up a book by an author (usually one I’ve never read), don’t want the experience to end, and try to recapture it with the next book in the series or try to find that same spark in another of their works.  If I’m lucky, my gloms come when I’m out of school so I have time to savor the storytelling.  If I’m not so lucky, I find myself cramming in bouts of reading in between grading papers, planning lessons planning, waiting in parking lots, and so many other stolen moments.

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Best of 2009, Reviewer’s Choice

I nearly always find writing the Reviewer’s Choice Column affirming (in a “See? There WERE some good books this year!” kind of way). And it’s always nice to have a column with unabashed gushing; often we keep that stuff under wraps. Unlike years past, we all managed to find favorites this year, and some of them were even the same ones.

St. Nachos by Z. A. Maxfield

Anne Marble:
Top pick: St. Nacho’s by Z.A. Maxfield

Anne has led the way with M/M reviews at AAR, and judging from some of our mail, we have some readers who really appreciate these reviews. It’s no surprise that her favorite from 2009 is an M/M romance. She loved that it was written in the first person (and stay tuned; a review is coming).

Three of our staff members chose paranormal novels this year.

As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason

Andi Davis:
Top pick: As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason
Runner up: What Happens in London by Julia Quinn.

“This was the last book of a series that I really loved and the finale was incredibly satisfying.”

Cindy Smith:
Top pick: Branded by Fire by Nalini Singh

“Changelings from different packs/species who have no choice but to work out their need for dominance in order to be together.  I loved that neither Mercy nor Riley gave up any part of who they are but were able to learn to respect and accept the strengths in each other.  It was refreshing to see a couple find a way to be together without either of them having to give up a certain amount of power.”

As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason

Emma Leigh:
Top pick: Beloved Vampire by Joey W. Hill

“It broke my paranormal slump with its amazing character depth and dialogue. I could also find no fault with the direction of the plot, which practically never happens!”

Three of our staff chose contemporary romances this year as well. There have definitely been some complaints that good contemporaries are getting harder to come by, especially for those who are not fans of romantic suspense. The evidence may be anecdotal, but the fact that they aren’t heavily represented this year seems to suggest that straight contemporaries really are a little harder to find.

LinnieGayl Kimmel:

Top pick: Vision in White by Nora Roberts

“My favorite romance is Vision in White by Nora Roberts. This book had so many features that I like. First, and most important,it was a straight contemporary romance (hooray for not a bit of a paranormal thread in it). I also loved the friendship between the four women, and the hero, Carter,  was nerdily divine.”

Abi Bishop:
Top pick: Start Me Up by Victoria Dahl

“I really, really miss contemporaries (and more particularly being spoilt for choice by them) and since Susan Elizabeth Phillips isn’t the SEP I’ve grown to love and Kristan Higgin’s book was just a pleasant but not spectacular read for me and Erin McCarthy has decided to focus on vampires and race car drivers, I could probably have had a really middling 2009. But Start Me Up was really romantic and pushed all of my buttons just right.”

Katie Mack:
Top pick: Under the Influence by Nancy Warren
Runner up: Hot Under Pressure by Kathleen O’Reilly

“Nowadays it seems harder and harder to find contemporary romances that don’t have suspense or paranormal elements, so when I find a really good one, I’m that much more ecstatic. Under the Influence fits that bill perfectly, and I had a smile on my face from start to finish. It’s a funny, sexy, and refreshingly modern version of the classic Opposites Attract story. Throw in a sexy and interesting secondary romance, and I was completely sold. Plus, I’m a sucker for gender role-reversal plots, so I loved the premise of a high-powered executive heroine falling for a bartender/beach bum hero.”

That leaves the historical romances, which took the lion’s share of the voting this year (with twice as many top picks as contemporaries and paranormals put together). More unusual for us is that four books got more than one vote.

Bessie Makris:
Top Pick: Silent on the Moor by Deanna Raybourn
Runners up: The Perfect Poison by Amanda Quick and Kindred in Death by J.D. Robb

Lea Hensley:
Top pick: To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt
Runner up: Practice Makes Perfect by Julie James

To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt is a solid number one pick for me.  I was fascinated with the badly scarred Alistair hiding away in his crumbling castle and loved every aspect of this tender yet sensual story.  While reading, I experienced one of my old romance highs I don’t seem to find often these days and it reminded me that it’s books
such as this that keep me reading romance.

“In second place is Practice Makes Perfect by Julie James  With just two contemporaries under her belt, Ms. James has worked her way firmly into a highly anticipated auto buy position for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed this battle between two attorneys vying for partnership in their firm.  This is by far my favorite contemporary of the year.”

Julia Quinn’s What Happens in London was chosen by two reviewers this year.

Jane Granville:

Top pick: What Happens in London by Julia Quinn

“I had a number of books I loved this year, but JQ’s What Happens in London was definitely up there on my list.  It just had everything I love about her writing, and was the epitome of a funny, light (but not fluffy) historical romance.”

Lynn Spencer:
Top pick: What Happens in London by Julia Quinn
Runners up: Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran, Freudian Slip by Erica Orlroff, and As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason

Lynn’s thoughts: “My number one pick for the year was What Happens in London by Julia Quinn.  That book flowed almost flawlessly for me.  The pieces fit together very well, and reading this one just made me feel happy.

Bound By Your Touch by Meredith Duran – a very close second; the writing style is beautiful, and the author captured the emotion of her story beautifully.

Freudian Slip by Erica Orloff – The author took what could have been a very cheesy premise and instead wrote a very poignant book about second chances.  The best parts of this story are truly romantic and I loved it.

As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason – I normally am a good girl and stick to 2 runners-up, but 2009 was the best reading year I’ve had in a while and I couldn’t leave this one out.  I enjoyed the entire Gardella Vampire series, and this final installment of Victoria’s story was truly satisfying and made me adore the main characters even more than I already did.”

Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband also got two top nods.

Rike Horstmann:
Top Pick: Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas
Runners up: Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly and Hot Under Pressure by Kathleen O’Reilly

“My favorite romance this year was Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband. I loved the exotic settings and the unusual characters, and the luscious prose left me breathless several times. My runners-up are Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly and Hot Under Pressure by Kathleen O’Reilly. Amazingly enough, I loved them for the same reason: The main characters were people who somehow felt grounded, more real with their flaws and insecurities than most other romance characters, and this meant I could relate to them.”

Heather Brooks:
Top pick: Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas
Runners up: To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt, Don’t Tempt Me by Loretta Chase, Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning, and Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly

“This was a really hard decision to make, but I have to go with Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas as my favorite of the year.  Neither Leo or Byrony are perfect and their relationship was a struggle to read, but I don’t necessarily like perfect couples.  I loved that she was difficult and that he loved her anyway as well as the fact that they both made dreadful mistakes.  I also appreciated the fact that she was an older woman and that he was infatuated with her for forever.  It was one of the most moving books that I’ve read in years.

“I have several honorable mentions.  The first would have to be Don’t Tempt Me by Loretta Chase, simply because of the laugh out loud scenarios.  Others are Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning and Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly. And I can’t forget Hoyt’s To Beguile a Beast; I fell in love with the imperfect, gritty hero.

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie also drew two top votes.

Lee Brewer:
Top pick: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley

Runners up:  Carla Kelly’s Marrying the Captain and Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas.

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie was my favorite because it was so wonderful to read a historical with intelligent yet complicated characters.  Definitely a book not to rush through.”

Ellen Micheletti:
Top pick: The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley

“My favorite was The Madness of Lord Ian McKenzie.  I’ve read several books where the hero had a mental illness or condition, and most of those led me to think that the heroine would eventually end up as the
hero’s nurse or his abused spouse.  Not this one.  Beth is strong and intelligent and she loves and understands Lord Ian.  I closed the book thinking they will be very happy together.”

And in what constitutes a landslide (at least among AAR staffers), Meredith Duran’s Bound by Your Touch is our big winner, with four votes.

Rachel Potter:
Top Pick: Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran

Jean Wan:
Top Pick: Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran
Runner up: Dangerous Lies by Anna Louise Lucia

“Only one stands out in my mind: Bound By Your Touch by Meredith Duran.  Neither plot manouevres nor secondary characters were extraneous, the character depth was astounding, and the writing just…sublime.  Frankly, it was pretty damn close to perfect.

“Runner-up & Buried Treasure: Dangerous Lies by Anna Louise Lucia.  I was extremely impressed with the author’s control of both character and plot, in a situation that could easily have gotten out of hand, and I am looking forward to this author’s future books.”

Blythe Barnhill:
Top Pick: Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran
Runners up: Marrying the Captain by Carla Kelly and What Happens in London by Julia Quinn

“When I sat down to write this column, I was still making up my mind between Bound by Your Touch and Marrying the Captain. It’s the Duran by the nose, mostly because it felt innovative and refreshing to me. But only by a nose, because I thought Carla Kelly also hit it out of the park. And What Happens in London was delightful and funny.

Sandy Coleman:
Top pick: Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran
Runner up: Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas

“I had a good reading year.  It was the year I discovered Deanna Raybourn, who is turning into a favorite author.  Connie Brockway came back to historicals (yeah!) with a terrific book, Sherry Thomas continues to intrigue me, and Charlaine Harris had the best Sookie Stackhouse novel in years in Dead and Gone.  I also loved The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie, and I’m excited about where the author will go next.

Two books stood out to me this year.  Lisa Kleypas has been a favorite of mine for years now and I thought she hit it out of the park with Smooth Talking Stranger.  I loved the heroine, but, quite honestly, the hero was what kicked it over the top for me.  For an author known for creating memorable heroes, he’s one of her best.

“But I’ve got to go with Bound By Your Touch by Meredith Duran as my favorite of the year.  The story and the characters were perfectly done and I was in awe of her achievement, while I also reveled in the story.  A benediction that is on the way to getting tiresome is to compare an author to Judith Ivory.  Nobody is Judith Ivory but Judith Ivory, but as a standard of excellence I think she will do very well.  I thought that the hero evoked what we loved about Nardi from Bliss – only without the vomit.  Definitely my book of the year.”

Our annual poll has a shorter voting period this year, so we’ll soon know whether our staffers choices are echoed among our readership. There’s still time to vote…and if you’re a fast reader, maybe our suggestions will help you find a few to squeeze in at the eleventh hour.

- Blythe Barnhill