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At The Back Fence-issue #154

Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

February 1, 2003

We’ve got many topics to share with you this time around. First up is a discussion about Chick Lit. Next Anne takes a look at holiday romances, then she and Robin talk about anthologies. Finally, all three of us will consider the first-as-favorites phenomenon.

Chick Lit (LLB)

Earlier this week I finished my eighth book of the new year, which means I’m on track (so far) to achieve my goal of reading 100 books in 2003. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I don’t think Chick Lit/Brit Chick Lit is for me. This is my conclusion after having read yet another Brit Chick Lit book that an AAR colleague enjoyed far more than I did.

The first Brit Chick Lit book I read was back in 1999 – Marion Keyes’ Watermelon. I liked a good deal of the book, but it soured for me at a certain point and my final grade for it was a C+. It didn’t seem to sour for either our readers or those on our staff who read it. They liked the book tremendously, perhaps even as much as the DIK’d Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, by the same author.

I read another work of fiction by a British author right after having read Watermelon – Sue Margolis’ Neurotica. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, although I realize it isn’t the book for everybody. The humor is biting and bitchy, and the married heroine commits adultery. But then, so did the heroine of Adele Park’s Playing Away, which I read in 2000 and thoroughly despised (my grade was a D-; it would have been an F if not for the last 19 pages). Both books featured married heroines who had affairs, but whereas I’d consider Park’s book Brit Chick Lit, I didn’t get that vibe from Neurotica. The reason may have been that Margolis’ heroine was older and more settled. There also weren’t lots of secondary characters who came together solely to dish, party, and get drunk in her story.

I’ve ordered Margolis’ new book – Apocalipstick (we’ll have a review online soon from one of our reviewers) – and plan to read it as soon as it comes in. I hope it’ll be as good as the wonderfully biting and bitchy Neurotica and not the train-wreck I found her 2001 release, Spin Cycle, to be. I suspect one reason I didn’t enjoy Spin Cycle was that it was more Brit Chick Lit than not.

And then there’s the “grandmother” of Brit Chick Lit – Bridget Jones’s Diary. I didn’t actually read the book until shortly before the movie came out, and I had an odd reaction to both. My grade for the book upon my initial reading was a C+, but when I saw the movie, which I thought was lots of fun, I kept noticing parts that were different, which made me appreciate the book slightly more. I still prefer the movie to the book, but realize that without the book, there’d have been no movie. Bridget seemed more like a 3-dimensional person in the movie whereas in the book she was somebody I’d never be friends with in real life.

Which brings me to A Promising Man (and About Time, Too), by Elizabeth Young. We posted a B+ review of this new Brit Chick Lit novel this week. My grade was a C+. It took me more than 300 pages of this 400+ page book to become involved in the story. I’m glad I didn’t give up on the book before that point because the last 100+ pages are definitely worth reading, but much of what Heidi Haglin raved about in her review did nothing for me. In fact, the one character I truly enjoyed – the hero, was one she found she didn’t get to know well enough as she read the book.

In trying to determine just why I don’t seem to “get” Brit Chick Lit, I think it may boil down to a couple of things – age and lifestyle. Neither alone can account for it, and I suspect it’s more lifestyle than anything, with a little bit of a generational thing thrown in for good measure. In classic Chick Lit fashion, the heroine of Young’s book is in her 20’s, isn’t tremendously ambitious, lives communally, and many of her friends are similarly drifting through their lives. While Harriet doesn’t drink as much as many Chick Lit heroines do and actually behaves responsibly more often than Chick Lit heroines tend to behave, neither she nor her friends resemble the woman I was in my 20’s, or the women my friends were in my 20’s.

It may have all begun when “party” became a verb. Even though my parents let me drink at our summer pool parties and at Sunday brunches when I was in high school, by the time I went to college I already knew I wasn’t going to be a big drinker. Watching my freshman roommate get sick after too many Long Island Iced Teas, on more than one occasion, only confirmed that I never wanted to get drunk. I don’t like the taste of beer, and it only takes a glass or so of wine to give me a nice buzz. If I drink more, I’m ready to crash. And as far as drugs are concerned, watching a close family member go through high school and college in a drugged haze was enough for me to know I’m too much of a control freak to ever lose control like that.

So you can imagine I didn’t have a lot of fun at mixers, parties, and happy hours during my college days. Getting together with friends solely for the purpose of drinking seemed a waste of time. I was the designated driver on many a Friday evening, and by the third year of college, had pretty well dropped out of the “let’s party” scene. I’ve always been extremely goal-oriented and rather intense, to say the least, which is why I’ve decided that Bridget Jones and women like her don’t appeal to me.

One of the reference books I keep by my desk is Susan Isaacs’ Brave Dames and Wimpettes. I’ve mentioned it in other columns, but I think it fits this discussion of Chick Lit even though much of the focus on her book is on TV and movies. One of the TV shows she talks about is Ally McBeal (1997-2002). Isaacs isn’t impressed with the show and deems McBeal a wimpette who somehow managed to be a good lawyer even though in her personal life she behaved like an overgrown teenager. This television show was constantly in the media during its five-year run. Endless watercooler discussions were conducted about the length of Ally’s skirts, the dancing baby, the unisex bathroom, and the sexual antics. I was never a fan of Ally McBeal. On the other hand, I was a tremendous fan of L.A. Law, one of the hottest shows of its time (1986-1994). Yes, there were sexual antics in this show too (anyone remember the Venus Butterfly?), but Grace Van Owen, Ann Kelsey, and Abby Perkins were all women at different stages of their personal and professional careers and none seemed like Ally, Georgia, and Ling Woo. Perhaps it’s that I began my professional career in the mid-1980’s and somehow identified with the hard-working professional women of L.A. Law, but if Ally McBeal were a novel, she’d be Chick Lit.

But then, Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City is considered Chick Lit as well. It gets a little murky in talking about the Bushnell phenomenon, as the HBO series is not the novel. I haven’t read the novel, but I love the show. And yet, last year I read another Bushnell Chick Lit novel – Four Blondes – and didn’t care for it at all. Perhaps it’s that watching Carrie and the gang behave outrageously on television for 30 minutes a week is different than reading a couple hundred pages of similarly outrageous behavior. I’d be interested to know how Susan Isaacs would characterize Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte.

Chick Lit has become immensely popular, so popular that Harlequin started an entire imprint – Red Dress Ink – for Chick Lit novels. The Red Dress Ink books have been so successful that the line is expanding to three titles a month, and the print runs are generally 100,000. Simon and Schuster is beginning a new line of Chick Lit books – Downtown Press – later this year. Many of my AAR colleagues enjoy Chick Lit, as do many of our readers, but it’s a segment of “women’s books” that in the end I find don’t work for me.

There’s a fear in the publishing industry that romance novels “skew old” while Chick Lit appeals to younger women. This is one explanation for Harlequin’s development of the Red Dress Ink imprint. Consider the case of Meg Cabot, aka Jenny Carroll aka Patricia Cabot. Cabot wrote several well-received historical romances, but didn’t “break out” until her Young Adult Princess Diaries series was published. Then she wrote The Boy Next Door entirely in e-mail format, and it was featured as a Reading with Ripa selection. After we posted a DIK review for her new contemporary, She Went All the Way, Cabot joked that she was thrilled to have finally gotten an A for a book for grown-ups.

Anne Marble, who hasn’t read any Chick Lit, fears that the publishing industry, with the creation of these new lines, may just be throwing in the towel on the idea that romance novels can appeal to a younger audience. She writes: “I hope that this doesn’t mean they abandon the possibility of trying to make romance books acceptable to younger readers. Instead, they seem to be creating even more separation – ‘younger women, you can read these cool books, and we’ll leave those books with the crappy covers to your mother and aunt. You know there’s nothing in that mass market paperback for you. Read this nice expensive trade paperback instead.’ ”

My other co-columnist, Robin Uncapher, offers her experience, albeit limited, with Chick Lit:



“I haven’t read much Chick Lit outside of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Like Laurie I began appreciating Bridget Jones after I saw the movie. In the initial book Bridget was occasionally very funny, but not someone with whom I could identify.“Part of the reason I had trouble identifying with Bridget may have been generational but it is also an American versus a British sensibility. Bridget, it seems to me, does a good job of squandering her opportunities. Its surprising when you figure how old she is. Many of her habits – her obsession with checking her weight for example, seem more like those of an eighteen year old than a late twenty-something. She drinks too much, shows up late to work and flirts constantly with the boss. To an American woman immersed in a society that warns women constantly off mixing her love life with work, this seems foolhardy. Bridget seems more obsessed with finding a man than most of the young women I know and she certainly has the kind of attitude toward smoking that was more common in the 70’s than it is today.
“On the other hand, what is irresistible at times about the book is Bridget’s tendency to get caught in the kinds of traps that most women dating fall into at one time or another. Dating a man who seems obsessed with you one minute and leaves you hanging for weeks is a quandary bound to make a woman feel crazy no matter how secure she is. *69 was not around when I was single but I am sure that if it had it would have been a secret addiction.“My original reaction, which tended to be judgmental of Bridget, lightened up a bit with the second book, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. By the time I read that book I started to accept that Bridget was an individual who grew with each experience. She’s a work in progress and she knows it. She’s also funny and intelligent and a lot more interesting than she initially seems. She doesn’t have to stand for every woman, which means I can like her for herself.


“Having read these two books I don’t have a great desire to run out and buy more Brit Chick Lit. I enjoy the pithy observations about dating life and the self-deprecating attitude of the heroines, but the genre isn’t quite interesting enough to keep me going on its own. Would I read one that got a super DIK review? Yes, probably I would but I’d want to know there was something new and different in it.”

Anne, Robin, and I realize the tremendous appeal of Chick Lit even if it doesn’t resonate for us. We’d love your input on these books, how they may affect genre romance novels, or whether they will further segment the market for fiction, and if that’s the case, what that will do to the readership of romance in the future.

Holiday Romances (Anne Marble)

Holiday romances are a strange breed. Just when you think you’ll scream if you see another theme anthology (what’s next, Arbor Day Kittens?), you come across a holiday romance so wonderful you wind up giving it as a gift to all of your friends.

Holidays are a fertile field for romance plots. Families are often involved, and people become more retrospective around certain holidays, and with any holiday, there are equal parts chaos and joy. Holiday romances are a great way to find an emotional read connected to a favorite event, be it Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or Halloween. (And on top of that, Christmas romances also make great stocking stuffers.)

There’s something for almost every holiday, too. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, there are romances based around Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Halloween, and of course, Valentine’s Day. The variety of holiday romances isn’t without some controversy. For example, many readers wish other holidays would be better represented – such as St. Patrick’s Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Kwanza. Also, sometimes the theme anthologies seem a bit forced. (Zebra’s Regency “kitten” anthologies breed like rabbits rather than kittens.) Still, there are a lot of choices out there, and because holiday romances come in both anthologies and complete novels, there are stories for those who want a quick read and for those who are looking for something longer.

Holiday romances are also a great way to bring that surely needed holiday spirit into other seasons. For example, Kay loves holiday anthologies, and she can read them at any time of the year. “As for when I read them, I do like to read them around the holiday they are set near, but I also love to read them at other times of the year. A good Christmas romance is often a welcome one to visit in July.”

Also, holiday romances run the gamut from romances basted in holiday tradition to those that appear to have been merely sprinkled with the holiday. Kay prefers holiday romances that play up the holiday theme. “If the title says something in reference to the holiday, I want some good holiday feeling and descriptions in the story. Just read one that said Christmas in the title, but the story really could have been set at any time of the year. I was disappointed.” On the other hand, Sharal prefers holiday romances that use the holiday more as a wallpaper. “I would have to say that stories where the holiday is wallpaper in the story is more my preference. I want the story to focus on the characters and the relationships primarily. I want to escape into the romance; not be given a story about a holiday.” It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that Sharal generally reads holiday romances because she is interested in that particular story line, not because she is interested in the holiday theme. For example, she read the Here Comes Santa Claus round-robin anthology not because of the holiday theme but because she was interested in the round-robin style. She was not disappointed in the book.

It’s too bad publishers don’t start labeling holiday romances based on how much of the holiday they actually contain. For example, one jingle bell for a Christmas romance that just happens to take place around Christmas, two for one where the characters observe some holiday traditions, and three for one where the characters experience important events based around the holiday.

Joanne loves some holiday romances and doesn’t like some others. “I absolutely love Debbie Macomber’s angel’s series. (Shirley, Goodness and Mercy).” Joanne also discovered Jill Barnett because of a story in a holiday anthology. “Her Daniel and the Angel was included in an anthology I picked up because it had another short story I wanted to read. I believe it was a Taggert/Montgomery story. Anyway, I loved it and began buying her books since.” (Daniel and the Angel was published in 1994’s A Holiday of Love anthology, along with Jude Deveraux’s Change of Heart, most recently reissued in the Simple Gifts anthology.)

My own experience with holiday romances has been a mixed gift bag. I remember getting my very first Christmas anthology, the Signet Regency Christmas anthology for 1989, as a gift from the used book store I frequented. (You know you’re buying a lot of books when you end up on the store’s “gift list”!) I read every story in that book. (You’ll find reviews for the last five year Signet Regency Christmas anthologies here.)

Writer Barbara O’Neill also enjoys the Signet Regency Christmas anthologies. She shared, “A tradition with me is to buy the yearly anthology from Signet, A Regency Christmas. Even though I don’t read the Regencies any other time of the year, there’s something about the Christmas themed ones, a cozy fire and a cup of hot cocoa that’s cozy and comforting.”

I know the feeling. Yet my experience with holiday romances hasn’t been all pretty bows and ribbons. I remember reading a “Christmas” Regency where the only sign that the book took place during Christmas was the snow and the burning of the Yule log. I thought, “Why bother calling this a Christmas story? It could have just as easily been set during National Duran Duran Appreciation Day.” Stories like this one scared me away from holiday romances for a while. There are also holiday anthologies I haven’t been able to finish because the stories seemed … blah. And I’m still torn by the Allison Lane’s Heart’s Desire in the A Regency Christmas Present anthology. It was interesting, but far too short – had it been a novel I might have been satisfied. And at times I wish there were fewer Christmas holidays (there are so many that they blend together sometimes) and more romances about neglected holidays.

On the other hand, there have been plenty of holiday romances that made it all worthwhile. The characters celebrated the holiday, bringing out the joys and emotions of the event, and the holiday played an important part in the story. (I liked my stories basted with holiday spirit – can I have the drumstick, please?)

I guess holiday romances are like sitcoms that do special holiday episodes. Many of them will blow away from the memory, like tinsel on a tree left out in the trash. Yet now and then, one will come out that actually sticks in my mind and makes the season special. Lots of sitcoms do Halloween episodes, but the Halloween episode of Beauty and the Beast was great because it fit so well into the show. The Thanksgiving episode of Mad About You (where the Buchanans went through at least five turkeys) is one of the funniest sitcom episodes I have ever watched. (In the Department of One Man’s Meat etc., some people think that episode was a real turkey.) Also, I have seen perhaps a dozen sitcoms based on A Christmas Carroll and I usually end up reading a book when they’re on, but I’ll always remember that episode of Family Ties featuring Alex P. Keaton as Scrooge. He was the perfect choice, but then again, I still cry when the Grinch’s heart becomes too sizes bigger.

More on Anthologies (Anne Marble and Robin Uncapher)

Anne Marble

That Signet Regency Christmas anthology I mentioned earlier was not only my first “holiday” romance, it was my first romance anthology. I don’t recall whether I read every story, but I think I read most of them. At the time I thought it was terrific because it included stories by a couple of my favorite authors – Mary Balogh and Anita Mills. It wasn’t until I’d read other anthologies that I realized this anthology worked because the stories were suited to the length restrictions of an anthology piece. Maybe that’s why it got third place in our reader ranking of Top Ten Anthologies.

Compare that with the Allison Lane story I also mentioned earlier. It would have been more successful as a full-length novel. I love stories with dysfunctional families, but I like to see them portrayed in more depth. The evil grandmother created too much turmoil for such a short length, and many crucial moments seemed rushed. Also, as evil as the grandmother was, her fate didn’t seem appropriate for a Christmas story. Maybe that’s why I wished this story had been a novel, one where this character was fleshed out and perhaps given a chance to reform.

This isn’t to say that anthology pieces should all be light and fluffy. I bought one of Zebra’s Regency kittens anthologies, possibly Winter Kittens, and I couldn’t get into the stories because they seemed too cute. And then there was The Magic of Christmas; some of it stories were too light and therefore disappointing. The best story was The Shepherds & Mr. Weisman by Annie Kimberlin. It worked because it combined both funny and emotional elements so that I cared about the couple.

It seems to me that for a shorter piece to work, the focus should be on the hero and heroine rather than on a dysfunctional family or wacky happenings. However, both characters must have a strong presence. When I reviewed The Magic of Christmas, one of the stories that failed to satisfy me was Jack of Hearts by Emma Craig. The whole story is from the point of view of the hero, so the reader learns about the heroine only through second-hand information.

What elements can help make or break an anthology piece? Trying to cram an entire romance novel into a short piece can make a story sink from the weight of plot threads. Many of the stories I have enjoyed have focused on a specific part of the relationship, leaving the rest to our imagination. They could almost be called “slice-of-relationship” stories. Too many failed anthology pieces try to “telescope” a relationship into novella length, but instead of telescoping the relationship, they often end up presenting readers with a “kaleidoscope” effect.

Because of this, I’ve learned that if I read about a story in an anthology with an interesting plot, I should look out. All too often, if I’m really looking forward to a particular story because of the plot, it can turn out to be a disappointment. One example is A Home for Christmas by Barbara Boswell in the A Fortune’s Children Christmas anthology. I bought the book because the plot sounded interesting. The hero is urged to hire the heroine as an executive assistant. As the story goes on, he sees her as bumbling and forgetful – never realizing she is like this because of a serious accident. It could have been a silly big misunderstanding story, and it wasn’t. However, while I liked how the plot was handled, it all went by too quickly. I wanted more. Or perhaps, ironically, I would have enjoyed a story with less – a story that concentrated more on the hero and heroine and less on external elements.

I’ve also learned to count the number of stories in an anthology before buying it. If a story has three or four stories, then I’m interested. If it has five, then I’m already certain the stories will be too short, and I’ll buy it only if I really like the theme or authors.

Robin Uncapher

There are some romance writers who seem to enjoy writing short stories. They seem to understand that a short story or a novella is not simply a whole book packed into a shorter form. A short story needs a simpler conflict. It’s like a close-up picture. An external conflict may overload the form with too much detail. Characterization takes time. Many very good writers are not very good short story writers. They need more pages to do what they do well.

One of my favorite short stories is Carla Kelly’s An Object of Charity, which appears in the same anthology as Allison Lane’s Heart’s Desire – 199’s A Regency Christmas Present. Kelly’s story is about a sea captain who rescues a brother and sister who are the niece and nephew of a sailor killed under his command. In a few pages Kelly establishes the bleak loneliness of Michael Lynch’s life. The brother and sister arrive at Lynch’s boarding house at Christmas and he decides to bring them home to meet his family, from whom he is estranged. There are two conflicts in the story, the first involving the romance between Michael Lynch and the young girl, and the second revolves around repairing the rift between Lynch and his family. The irony of the title is that it is Lynch and not the destitute brother and sister who is the object of charity. He is greatly enriched by the good deed he does, and he knows it.

This story carries the reader along very quickly. Characterization is established through current action, not flashbacks and it is the people, not the plot, that one remembers. An Object of Charity is a genuine Christmas story not a story that just happens at Christmas. Unlike many Christmas stories, the writer does not seem to be straining to make the connection.

When I look at an anthology I look for writers who have given me good short stories in the past. My favorites include Donna Simpson, Julia Justiss, Merline Lovelace (for historical short stories), Deborah Simmons and Carla Kelly. Though I might pickup an anthology with a Mary Jo Putney or Mary Balogh story in it I won’t jump for it quite as fast as I would the former authors. My favorite anthology of all time is The Officer’s Bride, which included great stories by Merline Lovelace, Debroah Simmons, and Julia Justiss. I enjoy Julia Justiss generally but I especially love her short stories, and in particular the one that appears in that book An Honest Bargain.

I grew up at a time when short stories in women’s magazines were very popular. The stories tended to be two lengths. There would be one “long story” of 3000-4000 words and a second short short story, which was only a few pages. These stories were often romantic stories of problems in a marriage. Unlike most romance anthology stories, most seemed to include a lesson for the reader (if you learn not to nag your husband he will be more fun to be around). The good thing about them was that they were very simple. A couple did not go from meeting to marriage in 3000 words. Instead they would go from arguing to kissing, a more realistic goal perhaps. I could do without the moralizing that those stories contained but I do miss the kind of short story writing that was often evident in these stories.

I think the stories worked because they linked into things that were really bothering women who stayed at home and whose husbands were away at the office all day. They focused on all kinds of problems: fear of adultery of a spouse, the temptation to nag, the adjustment to living with a man, the let down after the wedding and end of courtship, the way having a new baby can kill romance, the way having a smart sophisticated girlfriend who works can make you feel like a stay at home frump, going to a high school reunion and being with your husband when he meets his old flame who is still gorgeous. I remember a very funny story in Redbook called “Deliver Me.” It was all about a woman who is nine plus months pregnant and is desperately waiting for her new kitchen sink to be delivered. What I remember about this story was that is was hilarious and made light of what it’s like to feel like you are a small, married elephant. I remember another, very romantic story about a married woman who looks back on her courtship by a dark mysterious, handsome and very gothic stranger–and realizes once again why she loves her football watching meatloaf eating husband.

If I had one wish for an anthology in the future it would be that I would like to read more anthologies where each short stories was a quick closeups of a step in the romantic relationship not a condensed version of the whole relationship.

Parts of a Whole (LLB)

Last week I read the first two books in Stephanie Laurens’ Bar Cynster series. It wasn’t my introduction to the series, however; I’d read and thoroughly enjoyed All About Love a couple of years before. All About Love is the sixth book in Laurens’ incredibly popular series, and as I wrote in my coda to our review, I’d begun buying the series at its start. I can recall picking up Devil’s Bride – the first book – several times in the past few years, only to put it back on the shelf. I can’t explain why, but I did.

All About Love was a terrific introduction to Stephanie Laurens’ full-length historicals; the writing was witty and sexy and I adored the hero. Anyone familiar with the Bar Cynster know that each Cynster male spends the majority of their particular story in pursuit of an independent heroine who’d prefer not to marry. Rakes through and through, once a Cynster hero decides the heroine will be his – for life – he cannot be dissuaded, and how he convinces her that nothing she does, no argument she makes, no obstacle she throws in his path, will change his course, is a delight.

Although I liked Devil’s Bride well enough, I didn’t love it. I’d expected to love it because everyone else seemed to love it when it was released in 1998 – it even won as Favorite European Historical for that year, and hero Devil Cynster won honorable mention in the Favorite Hero category.

My grade for Devil’s Bride was a B, and for the second in the series, A Rake’s Vow, was a B-. Both good grades, to be sure, but not as high as I’d anticipated, given the hero-as-pursuer theme Laurens excels at that I adore reading, the love scenes I agree she writes well, and the confident, intelligent, masculine, sexy, stubborn, and altogether capable heroes she wrote. Why not?

I’ve got a number of theories to suggest, beginning with the First as Favorites theory I first talked about back in 1996. Is it true that, more often than not, the first book we read by an author we like is the one that becomes our favorite? An ancillary to this theory helps explain why authors many feel have jumped the shark continue to sell so well. Someone who hasn’t read the author before and is blithely unaware of all the terrific books in her past, reads a new book and, though it may contain a mere glimmer of her former greatness, there’s still something in the book to captivate new readers.

Was my Stephanie Laurens experience one of First as Favorites? I tend to doubt it because though my grade for All About Love is higher than my grade for Devil’s Bride, it’s no DIK. Well then, what about inflated expectations? Given that the book had sat on my shelf for several years with only raves associated with it, could it possibly have been as good as the hype?

I’ve read other books with high expectations and had those expectations met, so again, this isn’t the answer – at least not a complete answer. Blythe Barnhill suggests yet another possibility. Could it be that Devil’s Bride is a “book of its time?” In other words, while the book seemed incredibly fresh and innovative at the time – Laurens honed the hero-as-pursuer with a fine-tooth comb – would I have liked it more had I read it when it was new? Were some of the things that made it different then more common-place now?

I think Blythe hit on something with this theory, and yet I’ve got a fourth to posit, which is that rather than her books succeeding because the wholes are greater than the sum of their parts, perhaps they work because individual parts work so well, and yet when added together, they aren’t totally successful. I suggest this possibility because all three Cynster titles I’ve read are close to 400 pages, and while there’s not a duplication of scenes (although many would say she overdoes the love scenes, something I’ve not yet concluded myself), the books seem slightly too long.

This was particularly noticeable in A Rake’s Vow. I flat-out adored Vane Cynster and his efforts to convince Patience to be his bride. True, he’s not as spectacular as Devil Cynster, but then, who is? Every scene built on previous scenes – a good thing to be sure – but by the time I’d finished, I couldn’t help but feel that had Laurens cut 40 to 60 pages, the book would have been better. Generally I can pick out which scenes I’d cut to improve a book that seems padded, but I can’t with her books, which is why I’m convinced the parts are better than the whole. At any rate, it’s something to think about.

The first-as-favorites concept is one that seems to engage romance readers; indeed, both Anne and Robin wanted to add to the discussion. We’ll hear first from Anne.


While the first book I read by an author sometimes becomes my favorite by that author, it’s not what generally happens in my experience. Maybe that’s because I often give an author more tries than others do. If a book hits the right buttons now and then, even if I didn’t like it, I’m a patient and understanding reader and may very well try another of their books. There have even been instances when I want to love an author after hating the first book I read by then, as long as their future books looks promising. (This may be why I have bought newer books by both Jacqueline Navin and fantasy author Dennis McKiernan.) There are some firsts that became my special, even if not outright favorites, because they were so fresh and new at the time – such as my first Garwood or my first Deveraux. Those were the books that said “Wow! Not every book has to be about pirate jerks kidnapping the heroine!” Even in cases where I don’t remember exactly which book was my first, that first book has a special place in my heart.

My first Balogh was Secrets of the Heart, a book I know Blythe would love to cook on a grill in her backyard. I’m sure if I read it today I’d hate it, but back then it was something new to me. I was so sick of romances featuring heroes who hated heroines because they thought the women weren’t virgins, only these women later redeemed themselves once the heroes discovered their hymens. In Balogh’s book, the heroine wasn’t a virgin.

High expectations often do get as deflated as balloons made out of Superelastic Bubble Plastic. When I first started reading Romantic Times, I bought a lot of books because of a review or because the author got an award for romantic suspense or humor or something like that. All too often, I would write up lists and look for those books, in the mall store or the UBS, bring them home, and then find that I couldn’t even start the bloody things. The most disappointing reads were often the ones that Romantic Times said had Gothic overtones. Sometimes their reviewer’s idea of “Gothic overtones” seemed to mean “The heroine looks for a missing jewel now and then.”

The reviews in the late lamented Gothic Journal were better and more detailed than those in RT. And the reviewers loved Gothics and romantic suspense! Still, I learned to be careful. An okay romance with strong Gothic overtones might get the nod because it had tickled the reviewer’s Gothic nerve. But sometimes, a book that tickled a reviewer’s Gothic nerve might step on my last nerve instead. Even if a book got a good review, I had to remind myself that it might not be my thing.

This happened in a different way when I first started reading science fiction and fantasy magazines such as Locus. I made booklists made from their “best of the year” lists. While they helped me find a lot of new authors, I also ended up with droves of novels I didn’t like. That’s when I learned to read the reviews but pick the types of books I was more likely to enjoy. I know my likes and dislikes, and the reviewer doesn’t, unless he or she is psychic. At least Locus reviews are detailed, unlike RT reviews, so I don’t have to read between the lines.

Reviews are helpful, though, don’t get me wrong. I love AAR’s reviews (and I can say this because I no longer review here) because of the analysis – no need to read between the lines here. I’ve rarely been disappointed with a book recommended through an AAR review – even when I didn’t like it as much as the reviewer. And I say this even though I didn’t like Ronda Thompson’s Isn’t It Romantic? Well, I take that back. I guess I liked the book but hated the main characters, so that made it a somewhat disappointing read. Yet I could see what Robin liked in it – so if Thompson were to write another contemporary comedy, I’d buy it.

In some cases, I know I’m more likely to get “lucky” with a book if it got a mediocre (or even worse) review at AAR. It depends on the type of book – it has to be something I’d enjoy anyway. In other words, no Captive Indian Brides. But this does apply for books with Gothic elements or angsty heroes or even (now and then) Big Misunderstandings. One reason for this is that the reviews at AAR make it clear that even if the reviewer didn’t like it, people who like a particular type of book might love it.


When Laurie asked me to comment on “firsts as favorites,” two things came to mind. My initial thought was about authors whose work seems particularly fresh the first time you read it. There is just something wonderful about a reader’s first experience with certain writers and even if subsequent efforts are enjoyable, nothing tops that first time. I had that reaction the first time I read Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy. Though the book is light, it has a serious center, and the words “my dearest enemy” resonate with the reader. As You Desire is a good read too, but I’m always surprised at people who prefer it to My Dearest Enemy. And 2001’s The Bridal Season was a DIK for me. But if I had to choose only one one to take to the desert isle with me, The Bridal Season would be lost at sea.

Which other first reads are my favorites? Carla Kelly’s With This Ring seemed amazingly fresh when I read it, different than any other traditional Regency I’d picked up. Liz Carlyle’s My False Heart will probably always be my favorite of hers even though she is an auto-buy. Deborah Simmons’ The Devil Earl was so amazing I walked around the house reading it, bumping into things as I read. Neither of these books were DIK’s for their reviewers but it was the first time I read these authors and that probably made the difference. Similarly, Lisa Kleypas’ Dreaming of You is a book that struck me deeply when I read it. I love most of Lisa Kleypas’s books and in the past years have listed “A”s next to more than one of her books. But Dreaming of You seemed very unusual. The cockney hero was such an oddity I could not get over him and I have loved that fact that Lisa Kleypas leans toward men with powerful personalities as opposed to powerful titles. I’ve come to expect this from Lisa Kleypas and perhaps because of this her books do not make quite the same impression anymore. I like them, but two years later I seldom remember the names and events the way I remember that first book.

My second thought was that though sometimes I love my first experience with a writer and like subsequent efforts, sometimes those efforts seem to fall far short. And what is odd is this: I’m not always sure that the books are inferior to the one I loved as a first read. Instead I realize that the writing just doesn’t seem as fresh.

This is my feeling about why the books of Robin Schone have never been as much fun for me to read as my first one, which was The Lady’s Tutor. I loved that book, loved the denseness of the writing, the Victorian heaviness, the despair of the middle aged heroine. It was unusual to read a book about a woman who seemed to have immersed herself in her role as wife and mother that she had stopped thinking of herself as a woman. Schone’s habit of short sentences and one sentence paragraphs seemed unique and to add to the tone of the book. The next Schone I read was her novella in the otherwise dreary anthology, Captivated. And I wasn’t the only one to love A Lady’s Pleasure – Ellen Micheletti did as well. But things started to go downhill when I reviewed The Lover, which I graded B-. Ellen thought it was a C+. To this day I’m not sure what I would have thought of The Lover had it been my first Schone. I do know that the writing seemed less fresh and the one sentence paragraphs were starting to bother me. Next came Gabriel’s Woman. I felt Gabriel’s Woman featured too much of the ponderous sentence structure, dreary atmosphere, and over-emphasis on sex that had only bothered me somewhat before. My grade for this book wasn’t good, but what I found most interesting was that Marianne Stillings granted the book DIK status. It was her first Schone, and her review fascinated me because it articulated so well what I loved about Schone’s earlier work.

To the uninitiated, Robin Schone’s style is impressive. After I read Marianne’s review I wondered whether The Lady’s Tutor was a better book than Gabriel’s Woman? Or had Schones’ style worn out its welcome by the time I read the latter? I’m still not sure but I have noticed that a number of readers to whom I’ve spoken have gone through the same cycle with Robin Schone’s books, first loving them, then liking them, then, finally finding them too stylized and repetitive to read. Having said all this I still have hopes when it comes to Robin Schone. Her books were so different when I first read them that I cannot help but hope that she someday puts away the one sentence paragraphs and writes something else to amaze us all.

When I go through my DIK’s I can point to several authors for whom the first-as-favorites phenomenon holds true, including Julie Garwood, Judith McNaught, Jill Barnett, Kathryn Lynn Davis, Lisa Kleypas, and Teresa Medeiros. But it doesn’t hold true for a list equally as long, including authors such as Deborah Simmons, Nora Roberts, Catherine Coulter, Johanna Lindsey, Elizabeth Lowell, Anne Stuart. What about you?

Time to Post to the Message Board

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

Have you read much Chick Lit? If so, do you like it, and why? If not, why not? What are your favorite and least favorite titles thus far?

 Chick Lit has been called “post-feminist” literature. Why do you think that is?

 Which characters in recent books, movies, or television would you consider Brave Dames? Which would you call Wimpettes?

Do you get annoyed by the large numbers of holiday romances, especially around major holidays? If so, why and is there anything the publishers and writers could do to make them more palatable to you?

Do you prefer holiday romances where the holiday is important to the story, or would you rather read one where it is just a small part of it? What are your favorite holiday romances? Are there any holidays you wish would be “celebrated” with more romances?

Are there some authors who do better short stories than others, and what makes their stories different?

What are your favorite types of theme anthologies? Are there any you didn’t buy because the theme seemed a “stretch”? Do you get disappointed when you buy a theme anthology, and some of the stories seem to barely fit that theme? Do you dislike theme anthologies, and if so, why?

How often is the first-as-favorites phenomenon happened to you? Why do you think that is? Which authors fit this phenom and which didn’t in your experience? And if it’s a rare experience for you, share that as well.

 How often have your expectations for a book not been met? Which books were they, and why do you think they didn’t rise to meet your expectations? Conversely, have there been books that were better than expected? What were their titles?

What do you make of Blythe’s “books of the moment” theory? Are there books that you wish people would read immediately, that if they wait a year or two or more, the bloom will fall off the rose?

Are there books wherein the parts are better than the whole? Why do you think that is, and what are their titles?

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

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