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 At the Back Fence Issue #132

January 15, 2002 

Robin’s Yearly Look at
Buried Treasures

It’s that time again. The year 2001 is over and it’s time again to look over the reading year. How things have changed since 1998 when I scanned the supermarket romances and sighed that there was “nothing to read.”

After another year of the rewards and pitfalls of reading romance, I realize how broadened my horizons have become. I know many more authors to read than I did when I began and have an auto-buy list that constantly tests my ability to read what I buy. As a result I always have something wonderful to read.

As I write this I can look over at my bookcase and see Jo Beverley’s two 2001 offerings, Josie Litton’s three and a book by Sheri Cobb South that I have been dying to get my hands on. Mary Jo Putney’s The Spiral Path beckons me, not to mention a couple of review copies I had better finish in the very near term.

I am more a discriminating reader of romance than I was when I began. Not only do I spot timeworn devices that would have sailed past me in earlier years, my knowledge of romance writers and their work has made time in the bookstore a far less confusing affair.

In the year 2001 I discovered a number of writers who are not new to writing but are new to me including Merline Lovelace, Julia Justiss, Jeanette Baker, Maggie Osborne, Lorraine Heath and Gayle Wilson. Julia Justiss’ story in The Officer’s Bride anthology still warms my heart as does Gayle Wilson’s Honor’s Bride (which was reissued in 2001). Both of these stories had scenes near the battlefield which helped make them more special for me.

The downside of having greater knowledge of the romance genre is that plots that seemed just a little tired a few years ago now seem downright clichéd. And some well loved books and series are too predictable to read for now. I’ve put some favorite authors, like Julie Garwood, aside for a bit, not because they are not good but because in a few cases I seem to have read all they have to say. This is the way I felt when reading Seducton in Death, the most recent of the J.D. Robb mysteries. The book is very good and I agree with the B+ review. But having read the previous books I just couldn’t get terribly excited about it.

I read about 60 romance novels last year, 40 of which were new. That is far fewer than previous years and one reason is the large number of books that I began and did not finish. Midway through the year I went into a colossal reading slump, one of the worst I can ever remember. During that time I did keep reading books…I just didn’t finish many of them. What couldn’t I get through? Many of my unfinished books were old category romances by very good authors like Justine Davis’s The Morning Side of Dawn (I went crazy looking for this book only to be disappointed), Mad Dog and Annie by Virginia Kantra – I like this author’s work but the small town aspects of this one left me cold, perhaps because I grew up in a real small town and fail to see the attraction – and Merline Lovelace’s A Man of His Word (another book that begins with the return of a heroine with an undeserved “reputation” to her small town roots.)

Perhaps the authors I just mentioned should not be too disappointed as I also failed to get all the way through Georgette Heyer’s The Corinthian. (I considered writing a “C+” review of this book but wondered if I would be able to hold my head up in romance circles.) The book began wonderfully with an older, bored aristocratic hero coming to the aid of a very young woman dressed as a young man. But like many of the Heyer’s that I would term “lesser” this one seemed less and less convincing as the book wore on. The heroine was so young and innocent (read: not very bright) that it was hard to believe that the hero did not find her dull. Furthermore there was something about The Corinthian that reminded me more of a 1930s or 1940s movie set in the 19th century, than a 19th century novel.

My disappointment with The Corinthian was offset however with my delight in Heyer’s The Spanish Bride. This true story of a marriage of convenience between a Spanish teenager and an English soldier will stand on my keeper shelf forever.

Some of my favorite books of 2001 were not romances. Joy Fielding’s affecting The First Time, about the rekindling of a marriage when a wife is dying of MS was unforgettable. David McCullogh’s John Adams featuring the amazing real life romance of that very good, very human man with his wife brought me to tears more than once. The horrible events of September 11th brought me back to books by Thomas Friedman, the insightful and expert in Middle Eastern affairs who writes a column for the New York Times.

But when it comes to romance most of my favorite books of the year were written by lesser-known and unknown authors. With the exception of contemporaries, which seem to be dominated by a handful of blockbuster authors, this was a great year for relatively unknown writers.

I read fourteen Regency Romances this year. Every author I read in the traditional Regency category is buried but the quality of the best of these books just amazed me. The year started out with the very talked about debut of Anne Gracie. Although both Gallant Waif and Tallie’s Knight were originally published in the UK prior to 2001, they debuted in the US in 2001. Both books, published a month apart, created quite a stir among our staff, many of whom ran right out and bought the books as a result of highly complimentary posts on our message boards and discussion lists.

Carla Kelly, whose books contain an intelligent grace and humor almost impossible to find published her first new book since 1999, One Good Turn, the sequel to Libby’s London Merchant, which was reissued. Sheri Cobb South came out with a new book, French Leave, which had reviewer Ellen Michelleti dancing on air. Donna Simpson published two books Miss Truelove Beckons and Belle of the Ball, both of which got me to Amazon preordering her next release.

I read only four medievals in 2001 but I enjoyed all of them. They were Madeline Hunter’s The Protector and By Possession (both of which were DIKs for me), Susan Squire’s Danegeld and Deborah Simmons My Lady deBurgh.

The most astonishing buried treasure I came across this year was Paullina Simons’ unforgettable The Bronze Horseman. I read this book over the New Year’s holiday while snowed in with many relatives in the home of my extremely patient in-laws in Buffalo, New York. Six feet of snow lay on the ground and seven young cousins ran through the house soaking every item of clothing twice a day. People did puzzles, shoveled the walk, made snowmen and snow forts. But I cannot really say that I was there. I wasn’t. I was in Lenningrad with Tatiana and Alexander enduring the siege. The end of the book had me in tears. I read it again and again finally seeing the way of a sequel. All I can say about The Bronze Horseman is this, it is probably my favorite romance since Gone With the Wind. I am holding my breath for the sequel.

As always I asked Laurie and the rest of my AAR colleagues about their reading year in 2001. Laurie also had a reading slump in 2001 and read quite a few non-romance books. She wrote:

“My 2001 reading year was so different from past years that it’s hard to get a handle on what really happened. I got off the romance track relatively early in the year when I went on a fast and furious Laurell K Hamilton glom (I read nine of her books in two weeks) and stayed off the romance track when I read several of Joy Fielding’s suspense novels, some contemporary fiction, and Charlaine Harris’ Dead Until Dark. Our UK trip in July/August shaved about 6 weeks off my reading year; the only books I read were on the plane going there and coming home, and preparation for the trip and preparation of my trip diary took up the remainder of that period. And between our daughter’s life-threatening illness (you’ll be glad to know she is finally thisclose to total recovery now), and September 11th, I probably lost another 6 weeks, severely truncating my ability to read romance in 2001. Reading world-wide media and the excellent but incredibly-difficult-to-get-through God Has 99 Names, by NYT reporter Judith Miller, took up hours a day that normally would have been spent reading romance. Whereas last year I read 87 books that were mostly romance, this year I read 82 books and nearly a third were not romances. Not only that, nearly half of the romances I did read in 2001 were for books published prior to 2001.

“But I digress. After the LKH and Fielding gloms, I went into a lengthy romance slump and it was the traditional Regency that brought me back. I’d hardly call Anne Gracie a buried treasure after the huge start of her American publishing career, but it was her writing and that of Donna Simpson’s that pulled me back from my slump. While both authors are now quite well known in traditional Regency circles, it’s such a small group of romance readers that I’ll trumpet them whenever I can.

“My Regency glom continued with much of Melinda McRae’s backlist. I don’t know that she’s a buried treasure, but she seems to have disappeared off the face of the planet, which is a shame. I only took Regencies on our UK trip this past summer and nearly all those I read were written by Melinda McRae. They were all good.

“In order to enrich my experience in the UK, I prepared by reading some historical fiction, including Morgan Llywelyn’s The Wind from Hastings (an older book but one still in print). This was an intensely romantic book, and while Llywelyn is well known to historical fiction readers, I wish more romance readers would discover her writing. I came to her from two anthology stories she did for Kensington some years ago called Irish Magic I and Irish Magic II.

“Shannon Donnelly is a relatively new Regency author from Kensington. I read two of her books in 2001 and ordered a third. Under a Kissing Bough may have had some problems, but it got under my skin and had a terrific ending. A Compromising Situation wasn’t as good, but it was good enough to have me buy its sequel, which I haven’t yet read.

“Off the Regency front, I discovered the writing of Christie Ridgway. The two single title romances I read were both good; This Perfect Kiss was nearly a DIK for me. I’ve tried her series romance as well and though formulaic, she’s good enough at writing them that I’ll buy more of her series titles in the future. Jane Graves aka Jane Sullivan is another new contemporary author I’m interested in. I Got You Babe was lots of fun as a Cabin and Road Romance and I know Ellen likes her series work as well, written as Jane Sullivan.

“There are other books I enjoyed in 2001 by buried treasures, but it seems most of them aren’t writing anymore, so rather than send readers scurrying off on possibly unsuccessful UBS trips, I’ll probably stop here. Aside from Tallie’s Knight, 2001 as a publishing year was not a year for “great” romances for me, but for several good and very good ones. And even some that weren’t so great, but had potential.”

Blythe Barnhill, AAR’s Managing Editor, keeps excellent records and reads so much that I always look forward to her comments on the reading year. This year was no exception. She wrote:

“I was surprised to find that I had read only one book less than last year – 105. For some reason it seemed like I read fewer than that, perhaps because I had several reads which took me a long time to finish. I guess they must have been balanced out by books I read in one gulp. Of those books, 74 were published in 2001 (but keep in mind that I read 5 or 6 2001 books as arcs in the year 2000). The break down by genre is as follows:

  • 24 European Historicals (mostly regency-set historicals)
  • 17 Regencies
  • 15 Contemporaries
  • 13 Futuristic/SF romances
  • 12 American Historicals
  • 7 Non-fiction
  • 6 Medievals
  • 4 Series romances
  • 3 Literary fiction
  • 2 Mysteries
  • 1 each of Inspirational and Time Travel romance

“The huge difference for me was the number of futuristic and sci-fi romances. Usually I would read one or two at most, but this year I read all but two of the J.D. Robb books. I was also surprised to note how little literary fiction I’d read, until I realized that my book club had read a lot of non-fiction this year.

“The biggest trend I see in my reading is a preference for traditional Regencies and contemporary romances over European and American Historicals. Historicals are what brought me to the genre in the first place, but lately I often find myself dissatisfied with the offerings. I read many B grade historicals and a handful of B pluses, but the books I really adored this year mostly fell in other categories. I would love for this trend to be reversed next year.

“Many of the books I loved were very well discussed on the Internet, but two really flew under the radar, and would be considered buried treasures. The first is Julia Justiss’s The Proper Wife, which was good enough to make me want to hunt for her backlist. The second was Sugarplum Surprises, a Regency by Elisabeth Fairchild. Both of these are well worth seeking out if you missed them.”

AAR Reviewer Rachel Potter also keeps detailed records and had some interesting reflections on reading romance in the year 2000. She wrote:

“In looking back at my romance reading in the year 2001, my impression is that it was a great year for me personally, and a decent year for romance publishing in general.

“In 2001 I read 202 romance novels or romance hybrids. This is the breakdown:

  • American Historicals: 10
  • Paranormals: 3
  • Series Romance: 53
  • Regency-set Historicals: 9
  • Contemporaries: 37
  • Regencies: 27
  • Fantasy: 1
  • Romantic SF: 9
  • Historicals: 15
  • Romantic Suspense: 3
  • Historical Fiction: 3
  • Women’s Fiction: 10
  • Inspirationals: 8
  • Young Adult: 4
  • Medievals: 10

“I would read again or keep nearly half of those 202 books – I think that’s a pretty good average. I got the most amount of satisfaction from series romances (I liked 56%) and contemporaries (56%) and the least amount of satisfaction from American historicals (20%) and regency-set historicals (11%).

“My best discoveries were Charlaine Harris, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, and Carla Kelly. I had read Kelly before, but she hadn’t clicked with me. But I gave her another chance with Miss Whittier Makes a List; after that I was hooked and I went on to glom significant portions of her backlists. Other authors I discovered this year were Kelley Armstrong, Jane Green, Susan Squires, and Anne Gracie. I’m looking forward to seeing what they will produce next.”

AAR Editor Ellen Micheletti also had a good reading year. She wrote:

“For me, the big discoveries are Anne Gracie, Lauren Bach, and Susan Squires, all of them first time authors who made a big impression on me.

I am not all that fond of non-comedic contemporary single titles as a general rule, but Lauren Bach’s Lone Rider grabbed me. It was a perfect blend of romance and suspense that did not short-change either element. The suspense was of the white-knuckle variety, and the romance was hot and passionate. It was a fabulous book that came thisclose to being a DIK. If she keeps on writing like this, she will be on that island.

“Susan Squires Danegeld was impressive. It was certainly not a pretty medieval romance. It was often brutal and a bit ugly, but that was a brutal and ugly period of time. After I finished it, I wanted to know more. I felt like getting a copy of the Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People to find out more about this period. Normally I am not fond of medieval romances because they are so unreal, but Dangeld was real and I was hooked from the first page.

“Anne Gracie made the regency era her own with Tallie’s Knight and Gallant Waif. The ballroom scene in Gallant Waif is one of the best bits of writing I have read lately. I go back and re-read it and am touched all over again. Tallie in Tallie’s Knight is good, sweet and innocent without ever being insipid. Anne Gracie’s characters are so vivid – even her secondary ones and her stories are excellent. I’ve read lots and lots of books in this period (both historicals and traditional) and these were two of the best ever.

“Charlaine Harris is an established author I discovered thanks to the DIK review of Dead Until Dark. I went back, and read all the backlist for her Lily Bard and Roe Teagarden mysteries and am happy to see we will have more from those series as well as another adventure from Sookie and Bill later in 2002.

“All in all, 2001 was a very good year for reading. I made three great new discoveries and several of my favorites published some excellent books, among them Liz Carlyle. Yes it was a good year for me.”

AAR Reviewer Marianne Stillings found this year in romance to be rather bland and she focused more on contemporaries and romantic suspense than in previous years. She continues to “avoided paranormals like the plague” and read only a few European historicals and a couple of medievals. Marianne wrote that after reading Sweet Nothings by Catherine Anderson and loving it, she was disappointed that the two books preceding it shared too many similarities. She was happy, though, to find Kay David’s Guardian series and Katherine Sutcliffe’s Darkling I Listen.

Marianne, like me, found that some old favorites had simply run out of steam. She wrote “I was disappointed in both Linda Howard and Julie Garwood, and I lost interest in the In Death series and didn’t read the latest one. I also lost interest in the Evanovich series and didn’t read Seven Up. I think both these series should be nearing their ultimate wrap-up, though I’m sure devoted fans (including some of my AAR colleagues) would disagree with me.”

When asked to characterize the year Marianne wrote, “As far as biggest finds and biggest disappointments, I’d have to say that I experienced neither extreme. I went into 2001 with fairly low expectations, given the trends in romance lately, so was neither terribly pleased nor awfully disappointed. Most of my reads were C’s and D’s with a smattering of B’s and only three DIK’s all year long. All in all, things were pretty bland and I’m hoping things will pick up in 2002.”

AAR Reviewer Heidi Haglin found that 2001 would be marked as the year she read Gabaldon for the first time. She wrote, “Well, I think my only major ‘discovery’ this year has been Gabaldon, and in a sense that was merely me succumbing to the inevitable. Although I did have a very exciting minor discovery in fantasy, Juliet Marillier – minor because her third book is due out in February, so not much of a backlist to devour!

Like many of us Heidi could not help but compare this with earlier years when she discovered very prolific blockbuster authors. She wrote, “Compared to my discovery of SEP late last year, this year hasn’t brought that same sort of glom-able findings, but there have been some nice surprises like first-timers Jayel Wylie and Sue-Ellen Welfonder. As for a change in what I read, I have discovered a few “romance” authors who seem to be much more talented in suspense, such as Brenda Joyce, whom I had never read before this year.”

Pandora’s Box columnist Linda Hurst told us about her glomming for the year, much of which included traditional Regencies. She wrote:

“I discovered Valerie King this year and have been on a glom for her backlist same for Patricia Wynn. I love the old Jo Beverley’s too. But, I love Marion Chesney – her sense of humor is as twisted as mine is and she always takes the conventions of the Regency and sets them on their ear. The ending of Governess of Distinction, for instance, was so against the formula and yet so funny that I laughed for days afterwards. Typical spoiled brats needing love and loving governess hired who the hero falls in love with, but what follows is not typical at all. I also like Joan Smith who has an immense backlist.

“I think that Metzger is going to have a very hard time topping Miss Lockharte’s Letters. I have read most of her backlist and a few are a little dark for me. Although The Painted Lady was just average, I really loved Miss Treadwell’s Talent. It was just zany enough to suit me. And while everyone adored Anne Gracie, I was so very disappointed in the one I read that I haven’t tried her others. She’s just one of those authors I don’t ‘get’ that others seem to love.”

Outside the traditional Regency sub-genre, Linda discovered Linda Howard, Madeline Hunter, Adele Ashworth, and Trish Jensen. And not only did she read more Regency Romances than in years past, she read more fantasies and mysteries as well.

I’ve spent some time going through our reviews for 2001 and culled some buried treasures. Although I’ve read some of them, I plan to read more before voting in the 6th Annual AAR Readers Poll, which Laurie is kicking off today. How about you?

Medieval Buried Treasures (some titles linked to above; others you’ll find linked here)

Dangeld by Susan Squires

Master of Desire by Kinley MacGregor

The Secret Swan by Shana Abé

The Marriage Bed by Claudia Dain

White Lion’s Lady by Tina St. John

A Falcon’s Heart by Jayel Wylie

European Historical Buried Treasures (some titles linked to above; others you’ll find linked here)

Gallant Waif by Anne Gracie

The Officers Bride by Merline Lovelace, Deborah Simmons, and Julia Justiss

The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons (not genre romance)

A Woman of Virtue by Liz Carlyle

The Wicked One by Danelle Harmon

Anne’s Perfect Husband by Gayle Wilson

Traditional Regency Buried Treasures (each of these titles linked to in column above)

Miss Truelove Beckons by Donna Simpson

Tallie’s Knight by Anne Gracie

Belle of the Ball by Donna Simpson

French Leave by Sheri Cobb South

Sugarplum Surprises by Elisabeth Fairchild

One Good Turn by Carla Kelly

American Historical Buried Treasures (some titles linked to above; others you’ll find linked here)

The Outlaw and the Lady by Lorraine Heath

The Bride of Willow Creek by Maggie Osborne

Lone Rider by Lauren Bach

Into the Woods by Linda Jones

The Bad Man’s Bride by Susan Kay Law

The Horse Soldier by Merline Lovelace

Contemporary & R.S. Buried Treasures (some titles linked to above; others you’ll find linked here)

Double Trouble by Claire Cross

Darkling I Listen by Katherine Sutcliffe

Spellbound by Jeanette Baker

Series Buried Treasures (some titles linked to above; others you’ll find linked here)

Going to the Castle By Nicole Burnham

The Listener Kay David

The Negotiator by Kay David

The Renegade and the Heiress by Judith Duncan

Born a Hero by Paula Detmer Riggs

Alternate Reality Buried Treasures (some titles linked to above; others you’ll find linked here)

Bitten by Kelly Armstrong (not genre romance)

Dark Fie by Christine Feehan

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris (not genre romance)

Pilot’s Choice by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (not genre romance)

Time to Post to the Message Board

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

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

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

histbut Did you start many books without finishing them? If so what books were they and why didn’t you finish them?

histbut Laurie and I both read a fair number of books outside the romance genre including some serious nonfiction and historical biographies. Did you read these kinds of books this year?

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

histbut Did you put aside any authors or series of connected books this year mainly because you felt that you had read all they had to say?

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

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

histbut Laurie and I torture ourselves trying to determine which authors are truly buried treasures as some may be rising or stalled stars. Which of the authors and/or books you’ve seen in this column don’t belong on this list, and why.

— Robin Nixon Uncapher
In conjunction with LLB, Blythe Barnhill, Rachel Potter, Ellen Micheletti,
Marianne Stillings, Heidi Haglin, and Linda Hurst

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