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At the Back Fence Issue#129

December 1, 2001

As we approach the end of 2001 I have been looking back on what I have read this year and some of the changes that I have seen in myself as a romance reader. I’ve been asking myself some questions. Why do certain kinds of heroines make my “A” list? Do I criticize heroines for behavior that I hardly notice in heroes? What kinds of books am I reading now that I wouldn’t have read a year ago? I have been reading romance for three years now and it’s time to purge the shelves. Why is it that some books stay stubbornly in my memory regardless of the grade that I’ve given them?


Should Only “Nice Girls” Be Heroines?

Not long ago the AAR Reviews Message Board hosted a lively discussion on Elaine Coffman’s The Fifth Daughter. I haven’t read that book and can’t comment it, but JanetMM’s comments on the book spurred my thinking on romance heroines in general and the standards to which we readers sometimes hold them. Janet wrote,

“I read The Fifth Daughter the other day. While I agree with much of the review, I have to wonder if my dislike of the heroine is really justified. “Let’s see. An unwanted, neglected child. Treated badly by the father, blamed for the mother’s childbed death, flirts too much with the opposite sex. Plays with the emotions of the one person who loves… Hmmm. If this was a hero, would we find this behavior unacceptable? Would we call him ‘spoiled?’ Would the heroine’s friends tell her ‘dump him, he’s no good?’

“No. Every character in the book would bend over backwards to tell the heroine to stand by her man, even as he pushes her away. ‘Save him with your love!’

“Why is it that behavior considered justifiable when committed by the hero is beyond the pale when committed by the heroine? I’m not even going to go into the sexual double standard of dashing rake versus debauched slut. I mean, why is it that 75% of the romantic heroes are allowed to act with the maturity of a toddler, and everyone rushes to understand them, forgive them, but a heroine who is less than sweet and perfect is a bitch who must get her comeuppance? In so many romances, the hero can commit any crime short of murder against the heroine, and it’s “Poor man. He is so tortured by his past.” The heroine who acts that way is… well, not the heroine.”

The first person to reply to this post was Jennifer R. who, in addition to saying that she was going to go out and get The Fifth Daughter, added, “My favorite books are ones where half the audience are complaining that the heroine is a cold-hearted bitch! I just don’t get women who are sweet and innocent and cry and faint. Gag. I like it when it’s the guy who’s the nice one, and the girl who’s a bit bad. Or they’re both just a little bad. I prefer to watch the guy working to get the girl, rather then the girl putting up with a bunch of junk for three quarters of the novel ‘saving’ the hero.”

This discussion moved onto our Potpourri Message Board more recently and focused more exclusively on the sexual “virtue” of heroines; AARlist Moderator Anne Marble is currently preparing a segment on this offshoot. In the meanwhile, though, the original exchange got me thinking about my own expectations when it comes to heroines being “nice girls.” Do I expect a heroine to be a better person than the hero? Do I have more tolerance for an immature, nasty or cruel hero than I would a heroine? I hate to admit this. I mean I really hate to admit it. But I have a sneaking suspicion that I am harder on heroines than I am on heroes. Why is that?

Just for the fun of it I looked over my list of books read this year to see how many of the heroines I would put in the nice girl category and how many I would put in the – hmm, how do I put this – the “not nice” category? There were so many books with multiple heroines that I soon gave up on calculating a nice/not nice ratio. Also quite a few heroines went beyond nice into super nice. Here is what I came up with for the traditional Regency Romances I’ve read so far in 2001 (whether or not this is reflective of all the romances I’ve read so far this year I can’t say, but since I gravitate toward Regencies, I thought to start here). I was relieved to discover that there was no correlation between whether I liked the book and whether the heroine was perfect but look at how many of the heroines were in the nice category!


Book Author Level of Nice My GradeTallie’s Knight Anne Gracie Super nice AThe Fourth Season Anne Douglas Nice B+ (DIK for Katarina)Libby’s London Merchant Carla Kelly Super nice AMiss Truelove Beckons Donna Simpson Super nice B+Regency Christmas Spirits Anthology 3 nice/2 not nice CReclaiming Lord Rockleigh Nancy Butler Nice C (B+ for Ellen)A Rogue for Christmas Kate Huntington Super nice C (review forthcoming)Belle of the Ball Donna Simpson Not nice A (review forthcoming)Miss Westlake’s Windfall Barbara Metzger Super nice D (B+ for Claudia)

My favorite heroine in recent weeks was decidedly imperfect. This was Arabella Swinley, the fortune hunting heroine of Donna Simpson’s recent Belle of the Ball. From what I understand, Arabella, is already controversial among readers of traditional regencies. This does not surprise me. From the start of the book she is unashamedly determined to marry for money. Yes, her mother is pressuring her (Regency Romances always have to rationalize this) but it is pretty clear that Arabella has no serious objections to using her face to marry a fortune. When she meets the hero, a man of modest means, she is disappointed in his lack of funds both for her mother and for herself.

I liked Arabella Swinley for the simple reason that Donna Simpson’s writing convinced me that Arabella was a real person. As I read about her I was reminded of some of the beautiful, charming girls I knew at college, a few of whom dreamed of marrying wealthy men. Like those girls Arabella struck me as a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. With all her foibles love saves Arabella and makes her see that money alone will not make her happy.

But because of Janet’s post, I’ve noticed that my liking Arabella is an exception to the rule. Arabella is tolerable for me only because she is so well written. Women determined to marry for money don’t generally make my “A” list. And yet, how many heroes in traditional Regency Romances have I seen who have the same “I have no choice but to marry for money” attitude as Arabella? Do I think of these heroes as spoiled schemers? No. I am sorry for them! What is even worse is that unlike a fortune-hunting woman, a man actually had a chance to make a living (though one would never know it to read a Regency.) But I actually feel sorry for these poor men forced to marry to save their crumbling estates while I have nothing for contempt for women determined to marry money to escape far more desperate circumstances.

Some authors really do have a gift for creating genuinely good people that readers love. Carla Kelly’s heroines are both realistic and good. The combination is a joy to read in part because in reading Carla Kelly’s heroines I find that I want to be a better person myself. Not only are their actions laudable, their values are solid. In books such as The Lady’s Companion, Carla Kelly has written the only regencies I can think of where the heroine has purposely chosen a common man to marry, and been happy doing it. Not only that, after the heroine marries the hero he does not miraculously morph into a wealthy Duke or Earl. Wonder of wonders.

The more I realized that I liked good women as heroines (although I like my share of imperfect ones as well) the more I tried to figure out the reason. And it’s not just moral goodness that I like. I enjoy heroines who are better at “women’s work” than I am. This is confusing. Why is it that I, an admittedly terrible housekeeper, love to read about heroines who keep perfect houses? In Maggie Osborne’s recent The Bride of Willow Creek, the newly arrived “bride,” Angie, must live with the hero for a year. Doing this means taking over the backbreaking chores of a nineteenth century wife. Osborne, to her credit, describes this work. A whole day is devoted to manually soaking, scrubbing and hanging the family’s clothing and linens. Another day is devoted to ironing but a dinner must be provided for the family every day. Angie is great at this and soon has the house running like the proverbial top. Given this task I personally would have been cowering in the basement but I loved reading about the heroine doing it and I think the reason is that I identify with the heroine and want to be like her. Yes, when Angie’s house was clean I was happy. It wasn’t as good as having a perfectly clean house myself, but it will have to do.

The more I think about it the more I think that that may be the real key to why we often prefer very good, kind and traditionally feminine heroines to heroines with more challenging personalities. Down deep we want to be like them. Although many readers love Eve Dallas (including me), many other women have a hard time warming up to her. Julie Garwood has created a number of heroines whose goodness seems to overcome the fact that they are simply not all that bright. I loved Sarah, the ditsy heroine of Garwood’s The Gift, but her intellectual limitations seemed pretty obvious to me.

I am wondering how all of you feel about this. Am I right that romance readers like “nice” heroines above all others because deep down they want to be her? Am I the only one? Please let us know in the Message Board.



Discovering New Worlds in Romance

Its that time again. . . .

We are heading toward year’s end and I for one am hurrying to read more romance novels. It is not the loftiest aim. I’d rather get Osama. But every year at about this time AAR’s Annual Reader’s Poll looms up ahead and I realize that I going to be filling out a form for the best books of the year. There are so many romances published that picking the best, even if one uses reviews as a guide for choosing books, is daunting.

My reading this year was slowed by a major romance reading slump that ended in late August. About a month ago I decided that I just had to start reading more books and began using some of the speed-reading skills that I acquired years ago. Speed-reading is a technique that takes concentration. Every few years I revive my skills to the point where I am reading about 200 pages a day. After about three months I begin to lose concentration and go back to my usual hundred, but in the meantime I can read a lot of books.

When I speed read I take more risks with reading because a dull book wastes less time. If I am reading a book a day I’ll check one out that isn’t a sure thing. I’ll retry a writer who didn’t work for me the first time or buy a book on the basis of the review, even when it is something I would ordinarily avoid. This year I did the oddest thing. I read a Western. Odder still, I enjoyed it.

Now I have nothing against Westerns per se. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry remains on my DIK-to-be-written list, as do Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Western romance is not something that has worked for me mostly because the books I read were tremendously awful. Nan Ryan’s Wanting You with its thirty-eight page virgin love scene is burned into my brain. But my colleagues at AAR spoke so glowingly of Lorraine Heath’s writing that I thought I would try again. I am so glad I did because Never Love a Cowboy, the story of an Englishman who marries a dying woman in a small Texas town, captivated me; for a day and a half I could hardly put the book down. Not only was it a compelling story, but I enjoyed the short vacation from the world of European Historicals and Regency Romances, with their emphasis on class and money. I wasn’t going too far though. The hero of the book, Kit Montgomery, is the younger son of an English Lord. In no time I was ordering Loraine Heath’s backlist including her other recent book, The Outlaw and the Lady from Amazon.

A few days later, still thinking about Never Marry a Cowboy, I picked up The Bride of Willow Creek. I had read Osborne’s Silver Lining last year, but found myself unable to warm up to the heroine. The Bride of Willow Creek held my interest from the first page and soon I was back to ordering books from Amazon.

Reading Westerns is something I never expected to do. I came to romance as a reader of traditional regencies and branched out into full-length historicals and some contemporaries. I doubt if I will read huge numbers of Westerns but reading the ones I did gave me a little of the fresh excited feeling that I had when I first started reading romance. I was so amazed that I asked the AAR staff which, if any writers they had discovered this year and how their reading has changed as a result.

LLB was the first to answer probably because she had exactly the kind of new paradigm experience that I was talking about. Until recently, Patricia Oliver was the only Regency Romance author she followed. Then she read Anne Gracie’s Tallie’s Knight and Donna Simpson’s Lord St. Claire’s Angel close together and was hooked. Discovering this new sub-genre has been a revelation for her. She wrote:

“As far as romance is concerned, my discovery for the year has been the traditional Regency (outside romance I discovered Laurell K. Hamilton). The traditional Regency has truly opened my eyes to an entirely new world of books. Of course, taking nothing but Regencies on my trip to the UK this summer helped. . And, as someone on canwetalk noted, switching to this sub-genre has really cleansed my palate and was part and parcel of my decision to move away from single title historicals for awhile. No matter how sensual a traditional Regency may be, they are still tame in comparison to regular historicals. I think that, for me, love scenes had become such a focus in terms of sexual tension – when are they going to do it, how many times are they going to do it – that the romance of the books had been losing out in my mind. They also have tended toward purple lately – at least for me. With a traditional Regency, everything there that’s there at all is fairly subtle, and there’s no subconscious stuff going on in my mind. I can simply focus on the story at hand and not worry about whether I’m going to be teased to distraction. Even those Regencies I’ve read that I haven’t liked – such as Dawn Lindsay’s The Nonpareil and, sorry Ellen, Allison Lane’s The Rake and the Wallflower, have helped cleanse my palate so that I have started enjoying European Historicals again.

I’ve discovered some truly wonderful Regency Romances by Melinda McRae (mostly those from the early 1990’s), Diane Farr, and Donna Simpson and look forward to any future Regencies they, along with Anne Gracie and Patricia Oliver will write. I’m working through an entire two shelves of my tbr’s right now and am as giddy and excited as I was when I discovered romance.”

A number of our reviewers said that this had not been a year when they had made a paradigm shift such as LLB did, but almost everyone discovered some new authors to love. Long-time Regency Romance reader Rachel Potter found that her interest in the sub-genre was refreshed by the discovery of some new authors but that her overall feeling about the traditional regency was not good. She wrote, “I’d have to think about it a little, but offhand, I’d say that my discoveries of Donna Simpson, Anne Gracie, and Carla Kelly have made me feel a little better about reading regencies. Otherwise, I’ve rather disliked the regencies I’ve read this year. This is very disappointing to me since I cut my teeth on them as a romance reader. But somehow, with the exception of a very few writers, they don’t seem to work for me anymore. Sad.”

AAR reviewers Andrea Pool and Laurie Shallah had similar experiences in the sense that this was not a year for discovering large groups of books. Andrea wrote, “I don’t really think I have discovered anyone new this year at all. There were new books I fell in love with by authors I’d read before but had found underwhelming.” Laurie S. concurred; “I haven’t discovered a new author that blew me away in a good long while. Most of the new-to-me authors have been average reads (or worse).”

Pandora’s Box co-columnist Linda Hurst did go through a mini-paradigm shift in her reading. She’s been reading many more single title historicals and, like LLB, more Regencies. Fantasy fiction has become an important component of her reading and, after burning out on them several years ago, she’s back reading mysteries again.

There were no major taste shifts for AAR Managing Editor Blythe Barnhill either, although she did finally get around to reading J.D. Robb’s in Death series. She wasn’t surprised to have enjoyed the series because “she knew she would probably like them (the books).” In the course of 2001, she’s read all but the last two titles in the series and says, “I agree with some of the things that drive other people crazy (why can’t Eve get a decent hair cut? Why does every case involve Roarke?) But overall I have really enjoyed them.”

With AAR Reviewer Katarina Wikholm’s new baby and all-consuming job, she’s had a busy year that precluded much reading. Other than a couple of isolated instances, this was not a year for a great shift in her tastes either. As for AAR Reviewer Jennifer Schendel, she did not glom many authors other than a couple with fairly short backlists. On the other hand, while Jen used to read three contemporaries for every historical, it’s pretty much a 50-50 proposition now.

When Heidi compares this year to last, she finds, as do others among our review staff, a lack of “glom-able” authors, although some debuting authors have nicely surprised her. As for a change in tastes, she’s enjoying suspense more now than in the past, after having read a couple of authors who made the switch from romance to straight suspense in the past few years.

Reading a new sub-genre is not only fun, it is intellectually stimulating to be imagining people in an entirely new setting. I am wondering what all of you have discovered this year in the way of new genres or sub-genres. Please tell us about it on the Message Board at the end of the column.

Our review staff had a lot more to say about specific books they read in 2001 (and the year’s not over yet); I’ll be sharing those comments with you next month when I do my yearly look at the year just passed.



Imperfect Books You Just Can’t Part With

About six weeks ago my eight year old daughter Lizzy and her friend had a grand old time pulling Mommy’s books off the shelves in the basement. They were looking at the covers because, as Lizzy said, “They are so romantic.” I had to laugh in spite of the mess. What could be more adorable than two little girls sneaking embarrassed looks at all those clench covers? (In case you are wondering, Dara Joy’s Mine to Take remains hidden behind some very dry political books.)

Well, romantic as the covers were, they were also a big mess. Before I put them away I knew it was time to sort my books. Seven hundred romance novels stretched over two large bookcases that were made to hold five hundred. Things were out of order and hard to find. I had never done a really good purge of my romance novels and so, one afternoon I stood in front of the bookcases with a “library donation” box and prepared to get rid of my less memorable books.

The first fifty were easy. My romance library consists of many thrift shop books purchased on impulse as well as Advance Reading Copies (ARC’s) and other books sent to me for review. ARC’s that I didn’t want went into the wastebasket with a few truly horrible books that I would not inflict on my worst enemy. Woodiwiss’ A Season Beyond a Kiss made the wastebasket cut along with some old restaurant guides from 1985. The giveaways weren’t difficult to spot either. There was a period where I bought all the thrift shop Regency Romances available. Looking through the titles I saw authors that I would never read because so many of the authors’ other books had not worked for me. Next came books that I had reviewed and given poor grades. These were books that I knew someone might enjoy. To my surprise that was where I got into trouble.

Have you ever noticed that you can dislike or be lukewarm on a book overall but love just one thing in it? It makes the book difficult to give away even when you absolutely know that you will not read it again. This feeling for one good thing in an otherwise forgettable book is definitely romance-specific for me. I do not feel this way about my other books and was surprised that I wanted to keep so many mediocre titles.

A good example would be the literary fiction book Lost in Translation, which, oddly enough, I read as a romance. This book got a C+ from me mostly because the author spent an inordinate amount of time in the heads of people peripheral to the story. Also the book lacks a HEA even though the story practically demands it. Why did I even hesitate to get rid of it? One reason is that it has one incredibly hot love scene in it. The book is not at all graphic but this love scene, where the heroine seduces the reluctant hero, positively smoked. The other reason was the cover of the book, which has to be one of the most beautiful I have ever owned.

Another book that I can’t give away is Illusion by Jean Ross Ewing . I liked the book a good deal better than either LLB or Katarina, who both gave it a grade of D. As an overall story I would probably rate this book a C+, though I am glad I did not have to grade it. For me it defied a real overall grade. Why? Because I absolutely loved parts of it. There is a great scene at the start of the story where the hero has been given Spanish Fly and asks the heroine to stay with him, while he is bound naked to a bed. There is another wonderful love scene towards the end when the hero and heroine finally get together.

The external plot of Illusion was too dry for me and the book seemed to have a lot of history in it that it didn’t need. I skimmed parts of it for that reason. But the hero Nigel Arundham, Lord Rivaulx, was one of the most masculine tortured men I have come across. I still think of him as one of my most favorite heroes. Indeed even LLB waxed poetic about Nigel when we talked about the book recently. Ah Nigel! I couldn’t say good-by to him and he stays on my bookshelf.

As I sorted through my old review copies I came across Josette Browning’s Fairest of Them All, another early review book that earned a C- from me. This book failed on a number of counts, the main one being that during much of the book the heroine, Talitha, is a child under the guardianship of the hero, Daniel. Ick! That first scene where he sees her naked, bathing outdoors and becomes aroused had me squirming big time. She was much too young and right to the end of the book I was hoping that the hero and heroine would not get together. So why do I still have my copy of Fairest of Them All? Well I loved the hero, Daniel, an intelligent and hardworking man who was not an aristocrat. Daniel’s relationship with his mistress, Lady Jane, during the period when the heroine is a child, is also very touching. Every time I go to throw the book away I think of Lady Jane and Daniel together and how sad it was that the Daniel did not love her. The book failed but I am too sentimental to give it away because of that one very memorable relationship. What is really too bad is that apparently Josette Browning has not written any more books. In spite of the fact that I gave the book a less than stellar grade, I would buy another of her books in a minute because so many of the problems with it seemed to me to be typical of first books.

Another that I could not part with was a How the Rogue Stole Christmas by Rosemary Stevens. This book was one of the first traditional Regencies that I finished and I did enjoy it though I now suspect that the reason I did was because I had not read anything like it. The book was filled with the kind of romance clichés that I have come to hate. It had everything including a virgin widow who was married to a selfish gay aristocrat, a stolen kiss in a country inn (the hero takes the heroine for a serving maid) and some cute animals. Am I going to give this treasure away? Of course not! Every time I think of that book I think of getting ready for Christmas in 1998 and the thrill I had at reading romance for the first time.

Last came a book that has driven me crazy since I reviewed it. Try as I would – I could not put it in the giveaway box. The title in question? McClairen’s Isle: The Passionate One by Connie Brockway, an author who has written some (other) excellent books. I’ll say one thing for Connie Brockway. She wrote the most infuriating, unforgettable D book I have ever reviewed. Do I still agree with the D grade? Yes. But there are things about the book that I will probably never get out of my head. Halfway through the book I fell madly in love with the hero, Ash, only to be infuriated later by his cruel treatment of the heroine. I think I’m still mad. This must mean I’m still in love. For whatever reason I can’t say good-by to this book. Maybe I’m waiting for Ash to show up at the door and apologize? Go figure. These things aren’t always rational but they do explain why Connie Brockway remains one of my favorite writers. Her books stay with me no matter what.

So, I am wondering about all of you. Do you have any unforgettable books that you would have awarded a grade of C or less? Do you ever keep a book because of a great cover or because of one character or scene? Please let us know on the Message Board.



Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:

histbut Those Nice Girl Heroines – When you look back at the romances you’ve most enjoyed, do you find that you have a perhaps unconscious preference for nice girl heroines? Do you forgive heroes for things you would hate in a heroine such as marrying for money? Do heroines who are fabulous housekeepers and cooks make you strangely happy? Please share character names and book titles for those romances you loved featuring this type of heroine.

histbut Bring on the Bitch – After looking back at the romances you most enjoyed, do the “not nice” heroines stand out in your mind, not because there are so few of them, but because they predominate? Please share character names and book titles for those romances you loved featuring this type of heroine.

histbut So Many Books, So Little Time – I’ve been speed-reading as year-end approaches so I can get more 2001 books read before it’s time to vote in AAR’s yearly Reader Poll. Do you try to “catch-up” at the end of the year using speed-reading or other techniques? Do you feel as though you’ve “missed” something if you haven’t read a book others are lauding by the end of the year? What are the books you plan to read before the calendar says 2002?

histbut Paradigm Shifts – I’ve been reading Western Romances after having discovered a couple of good authors. This is something I had never envisioned for myself. Have you begun reading a type of romance you never thought you’d read? Have you discovered authors who have led you down unfamiliar paths such as the traditional Regency, romantic suspense, mystery, horror, or fantasy fiction? Please share your experiences. And, do you have any writers or sub-genres that you have put aside for a rainy day, such as Diana Gabaldon or Georgette Heyer?

histbut “Forgettable” Books You Can’t Forget – Do you have any unforgettable books that you would have awarded a grade of C or less? Do you ever keep a book because of a great cover or because of one character or scene?

histbut Authors of “Forgettable” Books You Can’t Forget – In talking to other romance readers, I’ve discovered there are certain authors who write one component of a book particularly well. Either they write great love scenes, great adventure scenes, or terrific characters. The rest of their books, unfortunately, don’t maintain this level of writing. Are there any authors you would put in this category?


— Robin Nixon Uncapher




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