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At the Back Fence Issue #135

March 15, 2002

This column has evolved since its debut in March 1996 as Laurie’s News & Views. It was renamed At the Back Fence in 2000 when Robin Uncapher became my co-columnist. Then in May 2001, we adopted a new look for the column to better reflect its back-fence sensibility.

ATBF is changing once again with the addition of Anne Marble. Anne began as an AAR Reviewer in 1998, then took over as moderator of AARlist in 1999. She does a much better job moderating the list than I ever did, and is so good about coming up with topics for discussion on AARlist, canwetalk, and our Potpourri Message Board that since she is no longer reviewing at AAR, Robin and I asked if she’d join us here At the Back Fence. Anne’s first “official” segments start off this issue of ATBF.

End-Peekers Anonymous (Anne Marble)

Many romance readers have a secret habit they don’t share with other readers. Are they hiding secret White House documents in their books? Do they have a secret fetish for captive Indian bride stories? No, the secret is even more secret than that. They like to peek at the end to make sure everything turns out okay.

The first question from the first issue of this column, just over six years ago, was: “Are you a cheater? Do you sneak a peek at the end of a book?” The overwhelming response LLB received was reported in the second issue of the column. While she discovered at that time that cheaters out-voted non-cheaters by a margin of four-to-one, non-cheaters were more vehement in their responses.

I didn’t conduct an official poll this time around, simply put the question out there. LLB happily admits to being an end-seeker, doesn’t think the “anonymous” moniker is necessary and says she stands tall as a proud cheater. Robin never cheats. If it’s a romance she knows it will have a happy ending, so why bother? Here’s what a sampling from AARlist revealed.

Linda explains, “I just want to know the couple stays together and all ends happily, I have been doing it as long as I can remember and I don’t think it has ever spoiled a book for me. One exception is that I don’t peek at the ends of murder mysteries (non-romance) as I like to see if I can guess the villain. But in a romance where I know there is going to be a happy ending anyway – what harm does it do to peek ahead and see? “

Raelene freely admits that she peeks at the ending on more than half the romances she reads, although she usually reads it only after reading the first chapter or two. She points out, “I think part of it is that in romances, the ending is not a surprise, we know that there is a HEA! (Well, okay, 99% of the time.) You know the hero and heroine will end up together. A romance book is not spoiled for me by knowing the ending – it’s the journey that I enjoy. I rarely read the endings first on mysteries or fantasies, because the resolution of the story and the fates of the characters are so much more variable in those genres.”

Triple DIK’d author Tina St. John is also an admitted end-peeker. “From the time I was a kid, I have always read the last chapter first (or immediately after the first chapter). I really don’t know why I do this, but I’m glad to see that I’m not alone!.” She often writes her own books in this fashion, writing the final chapter right after she writes the prologue and first chapter, adding, “I guess I just can’t stand not knowing how things turn out – even in my own books!”

What is the lure of end-peeking? Why, when so many romance readers hate spoilers of any sort, do so many read ahead? One reason is the importance of the HEA. A lot of readers have been burned by sad endings. Some just want a guarantee.

Linda always peeks at the end of romances but also general fiction written by men, adding, “I may be shallow but I like a HEA. I read to escape from a stressful life and don’t need more stress in my reading.”

Donna has similar concerns. “Since I read romance for the relationships, I don’t want to get attached to a couple only to have something terrible and irreversible happen to one of them. I want a HEA. Also, since most romances get everything neatly wrapped up in the last few pages, end-peeking is usually quicker and just as good as skimming to find out if there’s some silly plot device that I don’t like.”

Double DIK’d author Lisa Cach says, “I end-peek if I’m getting worried about the future well-being of the characters, and then I might, maybe, go back and skim the unread portions. Usually I’ll just put the book away. If an author is too good at creating tension, reading the book stops being fun for me (Richard Laymon’s books, for example. Reading one is like having a mega-dose of caffeine coursing through my system). I’m such a wimp. I need comic relief.”

I don’t think I’ve ever peeked at the ending to make sure the hero and heroine didn’t die. On the other hand, I almost always peek at the end before buying older Gothics. Too many times, I’ve read Gothics where the heroine ended up falling in love with the nice, boring doctor while the mysterious man turned out to be the killer. Or if not the killer, he would fall victim to a kooky relative. Yawn, boo-rr-ing. Once you’ve seen your share of fascinating enigmatic men fall off cliffs and rooftops, you start to peek at the end.

Sometimes readers want a warning before something bad happens to a continuing character. Anna is not generally an end-peeker, but there was at least one special exception. “When I finally plunged into the classic Daughters series by Aola Vandergriff this fall, I would go directly to the end of the middle books, to see if my beloved progenitors, Tamsen and Dan were still alive. I didn’t want to be caught off-guard, though I knew it was coming as they were getting up there in age.”

Many romance fans became members of End-peekers Anonymous because of A Knight in Shining Armor or other time travel and paranormal stories, as those often lack the standard HEA. For example, Diana peeks at the ending “with time travels and paranormals written by authors I’ve never read before and don’t know if I can ‘trust’ yet. I’ve had some real gut-wrenching disappointments with time travel endings, so now, I check first! If it’s not a HEA, or there is a “cheat” (like reincarnation – sorry that is not the same as the hero and heroine being together) I don’t read the book.”

On the other hand, many readers avoid succumbing to end-peeking. Gwen’s viewpoint on end-peeking is, “I don’t peak at endings. HEA is pretty much a given, so it’s not that they are together it’s how they got there that I enjoy.”

Also, author Eileen Wilks, for one, never peeks at the ending because when she reads ahead, it destroys her sense of accepting the book as reality while she reads it. She says, “End-peeking messes with my willing suspension of disbelief. If I don’t follow the story the way the author sets it down I’m too conscious of the book as a constructed artifact. I guess I could call this a form of ‘reader intrusion’ that interferes with my willingness to accept a story as reality while I’m reading it.”

From the time I was in Girl Scouts and I caught my troop leader peeking at the end of a historical romance, I was aware that some people like to read the end of the romance first, to make sure the characters end up in love and together. Yet despite the numbers of end-peekers, there are many more people who would never dare peek at the end. This is because they already know everything will turn out happily. That’s the whole point of a romance, after all. The ranks of end-peekers did, however, swell when novels such as KISA disappointed some readers by giving them a faux HEA. If romance ever allows more books without the HEA, the ranks of end-peekers will swell in huge numbers. However, if romance allows more books without the HEA, there will most likely be many unhappy readers, whether they be end-peekers or not.

Skimming (Anne Marble)

One close cousin of end-peeking is skimming, although many skimmers never peek at the end, and some end-peekers avoid skimming. Of course, most readers skim the first couple of chapters before buying a book. We’re all drawn by the need to make sure the book doesn’t turn from a comedy into an angst-ridden journey (or from a promising start into a turkey) in the second chapter. To help readers, on-line vendors such as Amazon are now including excerpts for more and more books.

But many readers find themselves skimming after they have already bought a book. What makes you start to skim? On AARlist, there were some common threads on what parts of a book are the most “skimmable.” Several readers admitted to skimming descriptions – particularly descriptions of clothing or rooms.

Cindy regularly skips descriptions. “When a room of the hero/heroine is described in rampant detail right down to book titles I tend to lose focus…also scenes that describe outfits in detail. Linda Howard stands out in my mind for this trait. I am not a clothes horse, so to read about fabrics and designs is overkill.” Cindy also skips over repetitive inner dialogue, and when the hero and heroine are separated, she skips ahead to make sure they don’t spend too many pages apart.

While Falcon is not an end-peeker, she is an occasional skimmer. She skims when she’s bored with the story or wants to fast-forward “to the good parts.” She will skim descriptions of the landscape, a party, or a grueling trip, “or if the POV is focused solely on some soul searching by one of the characters or if it’s something silly as why ‘does his face, ears, nose, body stir me so, never felt this way about dead-abusive-no good in the sack husband, I should hate him, lust him, love him, hate him?’” However, she rarely skims love scenes because she wants to know how interesting those activities are, especially if the characters haven’t engaged her.”

Pat is an end-peeker, but she saves her skimming for a certain type of scene. “Now, my skimming comes into play when I get to what I think may be an ‘icky’ scene; e.g. when Outlander’s Jamie is in Wentworth prison . . . yikes! I will not go there. Whenever I give this book to a friend to ‘get them hooked’ on Gabaldon, I always paper clip those pages together and give them a warning.”

LLB, who we already know always peeks, often skims in conjunction with sneaking a peek, for a variety of reasons. If the book is boring or is slow to read, she skims in hopes of finding something of interest – and no, she don’t mean love scenes. She also skims upon occasion when the book has gotten very intense or is at a sort of crossroads. Why? Because on the one hand she’s very excited about what’s going on and needs to calm down, but on the other needs to assure herself something drastic isn’t going to change and the read become a turn-off.

Pat and LLB aren’t the only ones who using skimming when at tense moments. Dar says, “I skim ‘big discovery’ scenes a lot, where the hero/heroine is getting ready to get figuratively slapped in the face with some information. I’m cringing inside on their behalf.”

Also, Dar is a self-confessed “skimming junkie” who skims almost every book she reads – including mysteries. It doesn’t seem to lessen her enjoyment of the books. She explains her habit this way: “I buy every book with the expectation that I’ll be up till four in the morning devouring it, and if it doesn’t flow like I expected after chapter 2, I start the skimming process. Sometimes doing a ‘light skim’ (read the first chapter or two then read the ending chapter or two because I’m just not into the story line) is what gets me to read the book, because then I want to know how the characters got to their HEA.”

Author Lisa Cach skims now and then. “I skim long descriptions of landscapes, and descriptions of houses and rooms if they are too difficult to picture. Unless it’s really floating my boat, I’ll skim a sex scene, too, and stop only for dialogue.” She also adds, “As a writer, I want to know where in my stories people are tempted to skim. Those are the places that need work, and will teach me how to do better next time.”

And then there’s the kind of skimming readers do when trying to cull their shelves before going to the used bookstore. This is why I often have to keep rescheduling my trips to the UBS.

Skimming is much more prevalent than end-peeking. Many people who would never peek at the end feel no compunction about skimming scenes that don’t catch their interest. While some people skim scenes that make them uncomfortable, most skim because the book (or a part of it) no longer interests them. Is there a reason so many people find themselves skimming whole chunks of the novels they buy? Are today’s readers simply becoming more impatient? Some readers are skimming not because they are bored with the book but because they only want to read the scenes about their favorite characters. Some people might think that does a disservice to the authors who put so much into their books. Yet at the same time, no one can tell a reader that they have to read every scene, even if it’s not entertaining them. Or, as Lisa Cach suggests, is skimming a signal to writers that some types of passages slow down the flow of their writers? Should writers take heed of what types of scenes people are skimming?

Business and Romance (Robin Uncapher)

I like my job but every once in a while I wonder what I’d do for a living if I had choose my career over again. My work has acquainted me with all kinds of jobs. Some are fun (people doing them seem happy), some pay unbelievably well and some help make the world a better place. What would I do if I could do it all over again?

Lately I’ve been thinking that I’d like to become a businessperson in a romance novel.

The first great thing about being a businessperson in a romance novel is that no actual, (read boring) work is involved. Romance novel businesspeople talk about “strategies.” They consider mergers. They’re always going out to lunch and “getting someone on the phone.” (Romance novel business people never make cold calls.) If they wake up in the night, terror over a missed sales quota matched with an upcoming mortgage payment is never the reason. Much of the time romance novel business settings irritate me but a few weeks ago reading Alison Kent’s All Tied Up I hit on the perfect workplace, a web site called gIRLgEAR that sells all manner of extremely cool stuff. The heroine’s job was writing a fun column that proposes a sexy game once a month. She had a monthly party called “game night,” where good friends, all couples, come to do things like scavenger hunts. Okay, look no further. I want this woman’s job. (Not to mention her lawyer boyfriend. ) The heroines of upcoming gEARgIRL novels will work at gEARgIRL too. Thank heaven none seem to be headed for their hometowns to open a bakery and marry the sheriff.

One thing that was fun about All Tied Up was the way the heroine Macy Webb ‘s personality matched with what she did. Marcy is a fun-loving creative person. She brought her humor, her whimsy and her creativity to her job and you could see it in the games she developed and the column she wrote.

I mention All Tied Up because despite its party-like business, I really enjoyed it. One reason for this might be this. I know absolutely nothing about retailing through a web site.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because, in 2002, I have been reading mostly contemporaries and series novels and there is a correlation between how much I enjoy a book and how well I know the setting. The better I know the setting, the more likely it is that I won’t care for the book.

Here’s an example. Not long ago my AAR colleagues and I were having a conversation about sheik romances. Silhoutte publishes these books regularly, the covers of the books always include a handsome, swarthy man and a beautiful woman. The man wears a headdress with a Western style business suit, nothing like the traditional clothing of the Saudis or Kuwaitis. My personal reaction to these books has been disbelief. Given what has happened in the Middle East in the past twenty years, why on earth would Silhouette be dramatizing romances with Arab heroes?

But in the course of discussion it became clear that a number of reviewers did find the books fun. Pandora’s Box co-columnist Linda Hurst pointed out that the series sheik romances she had read had heroes from mythical countries who were often Christian (thus reducing some of the cultural difficulties of a mixed marriage.) She and others at AAR equated the books not with the real Middle East, but with the old tradition of stories like The Sheik, which not only inspired the famous movie with Rudolph Valentino but is the book Jayne Ann Krentz says inspired her to become a romance writer.

When I heard this the light bulb went on! All of a sudden the romance of the old Tales of A Thousand and One Nights came back to me. Why could I not have seen it? Those stories really were fun. The answer is simple. I used to be a training manager for the Africa/Middle East division of a large bank. Reading about the Middle East, traveling there and working with people from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon had given me a great affection for the people there, but also great respect for the immense cultural differences. In other words, I knew too much.

And the same problem crops up when faux business people and settings show up in romance novels. Nine times out of ten very complex businesses, like international finance are dumbed-down the ridiculous point. Business leaders in romance novels never seem to make it to the top in the usual way (a history of good grades, excellent schools and hard work.) Roarke, of the In Death series is a good example of a romance novel business man. One minute he’s battling it out in the streets of Ireland, the next minute he’s a gazillionaire. It goes without saying that he “cut corners.” Successful businessmen in romance novels almost always “cut corners,” though successful businesswomen make it through hard work. Most of all though, business is used to demonstrate very broad personality characteristics. They are either bad or good, glamorous or “selling out. Business people who are good tend to be amateurs.

Lets take Jane Anne Krentz’s Perfect Partners, featuring Letitia Thornquist and Joel Blackstone. Joel, the CEO of a successful sporting goods retail chain has come up the hard way – “cutting corners” of course. He has learned in that old cliché the school of hard knocks. Letitia inherits the business from her Uncle Charlie. She’s a college librarian (read “Ivory Tower, ” naive but ethical). In the course of the book Letitia learns the business while Joel learns that you don’t always need to be unethical to be successful.

Of the books I’ve read lately Perfect Partners is probably one of the most pro-business. Joel, is not a complete crook and the couple actually stays in business after the book ends. The atmosphere is completely unreal and pulled me out of the story, but at least one did not feel that the capitalist system was oppressing the masses in the form of sporting goods.

Not so in Jennifer Crusie’s world where you can assume that someone who knows his way around a boardroom table is either a villain, or ripe for reform. Take Manhunting, where heroine Kate is a management consultant out to find an appropriate man to marry. The man who is appropriate for Kate is one with similar goals and lifestyle to Kate’s. She wants a man who is smart, successful, and ambitious like her.

Kate goes to a resort and gets herself a golf date with Peter, a distinguished successful businessman. But Kate’s not fooled. She knows what to expect from guys who make money. Her dad is one of those guys and they…cut corners! Soon Kate’s been tipped off to the fact that Peter cheats at golf. In fact Peter doesn’t just cheat. The man is a hustler who encourages inexperienced partners (even attractive dates) to bet money on their games then takes them for the bet. (One wonders why people do business with this guy, but then, his clients are probably all “cutting corners” themselves.)

Considering Peter Kate thinks, “These men are what you’re looking for, aren’t they? Tall, distinguished, successful and rich. You just forgot to put honest in the job description.”

Much as I enjoyed the book (and I did) passages like this kept pulling me out of the story. Creeps like Peter do exist, but that is not the point. Crusie was making a larger point. In Crusie’s world Kate should have known that Peter would turn out to be a crook because he was successful. The good people in Crusie’s world are school teachers, police officers, writers and business people whose entire motivation in business is providing employment for others. Anyone who thinks making money is fun must be sleazy.

I have the sneaking suspicion that the problem is that very few romance writers have spent much time working in business. The rough and tumble of people working together seldom makes it into a romance novel even as much as it does in an office based television sitcom. Reading Linda Howard’s Mr. Perfect I was initially happy to read about a workplace where four successful women got together for dinner once a week. Jaine Bright, the heroine of the novel, manages the payroll department. All the women were hard workers and in Mr. Perfect there is a pleasant respite from the cutting corners businessmen. Instead we have a character far more prevalent in real life. Janine’s boss is selfish and slightly incompetent. Now there is the kind of office situation we see every day.

But just as I was relaxing into the book I came across a mention of sexual harassment and how all the women in the book are “realists” and know how to handle these problems in the “real world.” In other words – none of them take it seriously.

This struck me as the most “unreal” real world statement I’d ever read. Having worked for a Wall Street brokerage firm during the Anita Hill hearings I was pretty familiar with how smart, very successful women approach sexual harassment. The only people I met who would have agreed with the characters in Mr. Perfect on the topic of sexual harassment were men.

Happy and successful women like those in All Tied Up are few and far between. Even when they do manage to make something of themselves romance writers seem to be far more conservative than society at large when it comes to employed women having children. When was the last time you read about a romance heroine who took her kids to a great local daycare center? I’ve yet to find one. Cannie, the heroine of Jennifer Weiner’s Good In Bed, thinks blithely about deciding to work part time once her baby arrives. Though she is about to be a single mother and is living on a reporter’s salary, it never occurs to Cannie that she is about to have huge financial problems. As a woman who has worked at home with children for the last eleven years I wanted to strangle her. Nothing like listening to your poor baby screaming his lungs out while you try to interview a client to make the whole “working at home” dream go sour. In one book I read this year, someone casually mentions how much better it was for a toddler to be wandering around the family restaurant/bar than going to daycare. My mind flashed on the wonderful hospital daycare where my kids spent there early years. Why on earth would a crowded restaurant filled with smoke and people drinking have been a better place than one where kids were playing Goose and Duck and learning ABCs?

In spite of all this I do enjoy contemporary romance. Jennifer Crusie’s books got solid B+’s from me while Howard’s Mr. Perfect got an A. Good in Bed kept me glued to the pages. Perfect Partners got only a C but that was because of the unrealistic dialogue and lack of chemistry between the hero and heroine. I’m not looking for my office life to be reproduced in romance novels but is it too much to ask that a millionaire hero be smart and ethical? That’s my dream man.

I’m Full – No Really, I’m Full! (LLB)

Not long ago I read two older traditional Regency Romances. One was Dawn Lindsey’s The Nonpareil and the other was Emma Lange’s The Earl’s Season. Although the former came highly recommended, I loathed it. On the other hand, one night – one late night when I had to defrag my computer’s hard drive – I sat down at my desk with Emma Lange’s The Earl’s Season and was swept away.

There were many reasons why I adored one and hated the other, but I’d like to talk only about a couple. To start, in The Nonpareil, the hero is twelve years older than the heroine (he’s 31 to her 19). This isn’t in and of itself necessarily a problem, but he feels, well, avuncular towards her throughout most of the book, which gave their eventual union quite an “ick” factor.

Shortly after reading the Lindsey, I re-read what is to me a classic story of romance and adventure for girls and women of all ages – Mrs. Mike, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman. In this “based on a true story” novel, the heroine is 16 when she meets the dashing 27 year old hero, but I never felt anything at all icky about their falling in love. Indeed, I still think it’s one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read – even if the reader isn’t privy to anything more than a few kisses between Sgt. Mike and Katherine Mary.

My other major issue with The Nonpareil was that it was over-stuffed with characters and goings on – all in the relatively small package of a traditional Regency. With all the characters and sub-plots, I thought of nothing so much as the Perils of Pauline when the heroine finds herself in trouble yet again at one point in the book. Because of the serialized feel of the heroine’s travails, there wasn’t enough time to get to know the characters beyond their stereotypes. When I looked at another Lindsey on my tbr Regency shelf and saw another mean-spirited and spoiled female relative there to make things difficult for the heroine, I tossed the book in my “trade” pile.

In contrast, The Earl’s Season has a more spare plot that better fit the length constraints of a Regency Romance. It features one of my more favored premises – the “misunderstood heroine about whom the hero believes bad things.” The “aha!” moment when he realized she wasn’t scheming was priceless. What’s better, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that the heroine didn’t try to explain away the actions she’d taken that led to her bad reputation. While some would say a five minute conversation with the right people would have cleared things up early on, I always enjoy heroes and heroines who don’t whine about their predicaments but continue to act with bravery and pride regardless of their reduced conditions.

The heroine’s predicament in The Earl’s Season was in stark contrast to the heroine’s behavior in Season for Miracles, the first in Marilyn Pappano’s Bethlehem series. After having adored Father to Be, the third title in the series, I glommed the earlier titles, and when we gave the latest book in the series a good grade not long ago, I decided it was time to go back to Bethlehem. Although both Father to Be and Season of Miracles featured a “big secret,” the former came thisclose to DIK status while I could not finish Season for Miracles. Here’s why.

To say the heroine in Season for Miracles is down on her luck would be an understatement. She’s had to quit her job and relocate in order to rescue her druggie-sister’s kids after their mom went to jail. The boss of her newer, lower-paying job left town without paying the staff, so she had to take the kids and move into a homeless shelter. When the State found out, they ordered the kids be removed to foster care. Because it’s Thanksgiving, however, they let her keep the kids for the long weekend. Instead of complying with the order, instead of giving up the kids, she takes them on the lam. This is when the book opens, and a winter storm is raging. Unable to continue driving, she settles the kids for the night in a deserted semi-mansion and plans to leave the next day (or as soon as humanly possible) when a series of events conspire to force the family to remain indefinitely. Will she be found out and lose the kids? Inquiring minds want to know!

I was seriously buying into all this until I was on page 262 of the 405 page book. It was at that point when it suddenly struck me that, as difficult as it would have been, she had had ample opportunity to “fess up” to any one of a number of people before things got so out of hand, before she fell in love with a cop, before she was ensconced in the community, before….

I know I have authority issues (I start to sweat when a police car is anywhere near me on the road), but when I saw nothing but 5-star ratings for this book at Amazon, I started to wonder why so many people were caught up in this story. Not only that, I started to wonder why I’d been caught up in it for so long before realizing that it was yet another Perils of Pauline read. Then I got mad at myself for buying into a story where yet another woman is victimized by circumstances outside of her control. In trying to do the right thing, she commits wrong after wrong after wrong. Instead of feeling sorry for her, I eventually felt contempt. I also felt a strong sense of unreality; the women I know would not have hidden the truth as this woman did. Revealing the truth would have made for a far different story; one I believe I’d have been able to finish.

I found more reality, oddly enough, in a January mail-order bride release by Alexis HarringtonThe Bridal Veil. Although not what I’d call a terribly exciting romance, this character-based story of a plain young woman who goes west to marry the man her now-dead sister was going to marry is one I enjoyed nonetheless. Why? Both the hero and the heroine were like honest-to-god real human beings. For that alone the book earned a B- grade from me. The hero and heroine were real, there was no kitchen-sink plotting, and there was a lack of artificiality that I admired. Most people I’ve talked to found the book less enjoyable than I did because it wasn’t action-packed; that’s precisely why I admired it.

Life in the old west was not easy for anyone, and many men found women particularly unsuited for it. I guess the same could be said for the Canadian frontier in the early 20th century when Mrs. Mike was set, although Sgt. Mike felt the harsh land would make the pleurisy-ridden Katherine Mary a stronger woman. It turns out he was right, but tell that to the modern-day ranchers created by today’s romance novelists.

At the same time as I was reading Mrs. Mike, I was attempting to read Elizabeth Lowell’s Beautiful Dreamer, another of the author’s series titles re-written and released as single title contemporaries under different names. I say “attempted” because I was also unable to finish the book, which I believe I might have liked in its original and shorter incarnation. As it was, the endless repetition of the heroine’s depressing attempts to save her ranch combined with the tedious repetition of how the “half-breed” hero, who is a veritable Superman doomed to be a lonely wanderer, were quite simply over-done. What the Freedman’s accomplished in a few devastatingly descriptive paragraphs or pages about the harsh weather, illness, violence, or death took page after page, chapter upon chapter in Lowell’s book.

The same can be said about the love scenes in both books. I’ve re-read at least half a dozen times the paragraph where, after Katherine Mary kisses the pillow next to Sgt. Mike so as not to wake him, he opens his eye, says, “Don’t waste ’em, Kitten” and winks. And yet the seemingly endless love scenes in Lowell’s book – which I have thoroughly enjoyed in some of her other books – were boring in comparison.

Another author to tackle the harshness of modern ranch life on women is Linda Howard, who did so far more successfully, I think, in Heartbreaker, a recent reissue of a 1987 series release (and third in the Midnight Rainbow quartet of Midnight Rainbow, Diamond Bay, Heartbreaker, and White Lies). I’m so pleased Linda Howard isn’t re-writing her series titles as Lowell has done; they’ve all proven disappointing to me because of their repetitive nature. Lowell’s book drags on and on about the harshness of the land while Howard’s book features crisper prose that is far more effective. Heartbreaker isn’t perfect, though; the reason behind the villain’s behavior struck a false chord with me, although not nearly so annoyingly false and contrived a chord as the villain’s behavior in Beautiful Dreamer.

Whether or not I enjoyed the books I’ve mentioned about comes down to this: were they too full? Were they too full of plot, characters, pages, themselves? If they were too full of any (or all) of these things, they did not become real for me and instead sunk of their own weight. Not only that, but by being too full or repetitious, the characters never really had a chance to live and breathe; they suffocated in stereotype instead. And when characters become stereotypes, how can their romances ever feel real?

When I talked about this with Anne, she suggested a term that I like: “kitchen-sink peopling.” That would certainly apply to Dawn Lindsey’s Regency, which also succumbed to kitchen-sink plotting. Lowell’s book, on the other hand, suffered from the opposite extreme. There wasn’t kitchen-sink peopling or plotting, there simply wasn’t enough story to sustain the length of the book, but there was still “too much.” The author constantly repeated herself about the land and the doomed nature of the heroic hero and heroic yet pitiful heroine. Let’s just hope she won’t be re-writing Love Song for a Raven.

Anne also suggested that all these problems thrown at the various heroines from these books could backfire. There is a fine line between sympathy for a heroine and eventually disconnecting from her after she gets knocked down once too often. Is it possible that some writers throw a lot at their heroines because they’re afraid we won’t feel empathy for these women otherwise? Why is it that these sorts of things rarely happen to heroes?

Think of the politically correct standards of conduct initiated at several colleges in the 1990’s. Instead of equalizing women they often had the effect of creating a new class of victim. By constantly beating down supposedly strong women, are some authors simply putting new clothes on the earlier heroine as victim model we saw thirty years ago? That’s not why I read romance; I thought we’d moved beyond that.

Let’s Take a Quick Poll!

Before you head off to the ATBF Message Board, let’s take a quick poll. After you answer the following question about the size of your tbr pile/stack/wall/room, you’ll be taken back here to the column, directly underneath the poll question itself, where the questions for the message board are listed (feel free to scroll down one screen and then back again to see where you’ll end up). Since it’ll be on your mind, the first question will relate to the size of your tbr and will allow you to expand upon your answer.

ATBF Survey Question
How big is yours? (your tbr pile)
I don’t have a tbr pile
My tbr pile is small – less than 20 books
My tbr is between 20 and 50 books
My tbr isn’t so bad; it’s between 50 and 100 books
My tbr is getting up there; it’s between 100 and 200
My stack has gotten out of hand; I’ve got 200-300 books
I take my tbr very seriously and have 300-500 books
My tbr has involved carpentry; I have 500-1,000 books tbr
I’m a serial bookaholic with 1,000-1,500 books tbr
What? Why did you stop at 1,500?
Poll closed March 31st
Results can be found here.
Alxnet Free Web Tools

Time to Post to the Message Board

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

histbut You and Your TBR’s – Are you in the closet about your tbr stack? Is it non-existent, or the size of a pile, shelf, shelves, room, or rooms? If you don’t have one, tell those of us who are buried beneath large ones why that is. And, if you have one, is it something of which you are proud or embarrassed?

histbut End-Peeking – Do you sneak a peek or are you amazed that there are people who do? If you peek, why do you do it? And, if you do it, is it a rare event, a common occurence, or an all-the-time kind of thing?

histbut Skimming – It seems as though there are many readers skim, although why they skim and how often they skim is debatable. Do you skim? If so, why? If it’s because a book got boring, why not just put it down and be done with it? If it’s for the opposite reason – the book has reached a critical and dramatic juncture – why not just forge onward?

histbut Business and Romance – Do you ever suspect that romance writers do not have a clue about the professions they choose for their characters? Which books seem to be on target and which ones do you think were written by clueless writers? And, do you, as Robin does, detect a subtle or not so subtle anti-business bias in romances?

histbut The Sheik – What is the allure of the sheik and the world he represents? If you enjoy reading romances with potentates, harems, or modern-day Arab princes, tell us why, and tell us which are the best of these books.

histbut The Kitchen Sink – Is “kitchen sink peopling” a valid complaint in the same manner as “kitchen sink plotting” is? Do you find that certain books seem to sink of their own weight?

histbut Reality – While romances are supposed to be fantasy-based, both Robin and LLB mentioned certain unreal qualities that bother them. Which books presented real life characters and issues in a way that worked for you? Which books seemed to require so much suspension of disbelief that they failed in your mind?

histbut Victimhood – In an attempt to portray women as strong, do some authors pile on so many problems that these same women invariably become victims? Is this something you’ve noticed or never thought about? Is this a problem? Finally, is it possible that some writers throw a lot at their heroines because they’re afraid we won’t feel empathy for these women otherwise? Why is it that these sorts of things rarely happen to heroes?

histbut Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

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