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Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

May 15, 2003 – Issue #160

This ATBF column continues discussions on super couples and conversion kits from last time and begins new discussion on bodice-rippers and romance novel gimmickry. Due to length constraints, the conversion kit segment will be a major focus in the following ATBF and will only be touched on below.

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Super Couples (Anne Marble, with an introduction by LLB)

Jennifer Schendel’s segment on Super Couples in the May 1st ATBF intrigued me. Like Jen, I have a hard time thinking of romance novel super couples, partly because of that epic quality she mentioned in regards to many of the couples she picked. But for me there’s another reason. I can’t help but think of super couples and tragedy in the same light. Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina and Vronsky, Dr Zhivago and Lara. What do these couples share in common? They are doomed, of course, which makes an HEA impossible. And we all know how Gone With the Wind ends.

When I look back at my own favorite novels – romance or otherwise – only one other couple sticks out as being a super couple. They are a super couple for the same reason I mentioned above – their romance was doomed and had long-lasting repercussions, but they are also only (most likely) a super couple to me.

My favorite novel, Kathryn Lynn Davis’ historical Too Deep for Tears, is built on the relationship of diplomat Charles Kittridge and his wife, Mairi Rose, a creature of the Scottish Highlands. Charles is a wanderer and Mairi is only at home in Glen Affric. The book features four distinct storylines. Three are about Charles’ children, one with Mairi and two with two other women – a lover in China and a lover in India. The fourth story brings them all, Charles included, back to the glen where its healing magic unites these people as a family.

The super couple for me in this book – and in the two books that follow – are Ailsa and Ian. Ailsa is the daughter of Mairi and Charles. She too is a creature of the glen, but her destiny takes her to London after marrying William. The marriage comes as a surprise to all who know Ailsa in the glen save her mother. Everyone expected that Ailsa would marry Ian, her childhood friend, soulmate, and the man with whom she shares an almost psychic connection. Though she and William share a loving marriage until her death, her connection with Ian is Ailsa’s lifeline and is always in the background.

In All We Hold Dear, the second book in this series, Ian is content in his long marriage to Jenny, a girl from the glen. Such is the magical power of Glen Affric that it calls out to one of Ailsa’s children, Alanna, who moves there and lives with her grandmother Mairi. And after her beloved William dies, Ailsa joins her mother and daughter.

All We Hold Dear does not feature Charles Kittridge’s other daughters; their stories pick up again in Somewhere Lies the Moon. Instead, All We Hold Dear focuses on the “Rose” women. There is love involved, for Ailsa even after the death of her beloved husband, and for Alanna, in a love closely intertwined with her mother’s past. Yes, Ailsa does find love again – with Ian – and the results are profound. The power of the glen is immense. Love is given and love is taken away. The glen is a life force. Life is given, life is taken away. There is birth and there is death; although Ailsa and Ian’s love has a legacy, much suffering is involved. Eventually their love is their doom.

Much of the discussion, as Anne continues it, differs greatly from my interpretation of the “super couple.” She segues from super couples into a look at bodice-rippers, and a comparison and contrast of bodice-rippers and romance. I think you’ll enjoy it.


In her segment Jen asked readers to define “super couples” and talk about which romance novel couples they thought qualified. Responses were many and varied. Maili thinks that couples in a long-running series can become super couples, in part because even people who haven’t read the books have come across discussions about the series. I confess that I haven’t read the In Death series yet (burn the heretic!), and I still have to read the Brockmann series with Sam and Alyssa, yet I feel as though I know a lot about them just from reading about them at AAR. Maili, however, doesn’t think that couples from classics, such as Darcy and Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice, qualify as super couples because most of those who “know” these couples only know them through movies or miniseries. I can think of a lot of classic romantic books I haven’t read yet, from Austen to Mitchell (although I’m working on the Mitchell), so I tend to agree with both her comments.

Annie nominated Tom Jones and Sophie Weston from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones as her favorite super couple – this is one of those rare instances when a book is even longer than Gone With the Wind! And yet this may be another case where people are familiar with the couple because they either saw or heard about the movie version starring Albert Finney.

Though it’s true a lot of people know about Scarlett and Rhett from the filmed version of the story, Lisa does see them as a super couple, partly because of the struggles faced in the book. Misunderstandings, separations, war, intrigue… sounds a lot like the plots of the big, epic romances of the 1970’s and 80’s, doesn’t it? And yet Lisa has a hard time finding super couples in today’s romances. “Eve and Roarke may be my favorite contemporary couple, but the fact that they reside in a series gives them a big advantage. I haven’t read The Bronze Horseman (and didn’t finish) Outlander when I found out that the heroine was married. And the whole Sam and Alyssa thing in Brockmann’s Troubleshooters series still boggles my mind. I feel like this minor storyline has taken away from the main plots. That’s a shame, in my opinion, because those stories are really good. I simply don’t understand how these two could ever be compared to Eve and Roarke and the love they’ve found with each other. But as appealing as Eve and Roarke are, they’re not Scarlett and Rhett. And I doubt, even with potential film adaptations, that they’ll ever reach the magnitude of Scarlett and Rhett. In other words… Margaret Mitchell did in one book what it’s taken J.D. Robb 15 (and counting) to accomplish. No one – in any genre – has even come close to this feat.” Lisa did later decide that Romeo and Juliet qualify as a super couple, even though there was no possibility of an HEA for them.

Sandy C considered two of the couples Jen talked about – Eve and Roarke and Claire and Jamie. She concluded that had Eve and Roarke only appeared in one book, they would not be a super couple; they attained super couple status, however, after a few books in the series. On the other hand, she wrote, “Even if Gabaldon had written only one book, I would have put Jamie and Claire on the list. In Outlander, I left with the impression that these two would always be ‘soulmates’ and ultimately I think that is what makes a memorable couple.”

The amount of time you spend with a couple can make a difference. Louise enjoys mysteries featuring a female protagonist, particularly when a romance develops over the course of a series. China Bayles, Irene Kelly, Goldy Bear, Annie Laurance, among others, are women who meet and develop a relationship with a man in the first book of a series that sometimes leads to marriage. She added, “In each case I have enjoyed the books due to the continuing relationship between the couple and a chance to visit with them in each book. Only one book would not have allowed me the opportunity to get to know the couple well.”

Mysteries seem to be fertile ground for growing super couples – probably because the couples are developed over a series of books. Other couples from mysteries were nominated as super couples, such as Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane and Gail Connor and Anthony Quintana, And Carol pointed out something that Pandora’s Box co-columnist Linda Hurst has been saying for some time: many readers felt betrayed when Charlaine Harris killed off Aurora Teagarden’s husband, Martin, after several books.

However, dfl said that time spent with the couple doesn’t necessarily make that couple a super couple. Also, sometimes you know right away that a couple is destined to be a super couple. Echoing Sandy’s comments, dfl wrote that, “The moment Claire was sitting on Jamie’s lap and the horse comment was made about letting him ride her anywhere, along with his tender response to her grief… BAM, I just knew it and felt they were a Super Couple.” She had a similar reaction to “Alexander seeing Tatiana eating an ice cream and following her onto the bus. I don’t know when it hits or where it comes from. I also felt both couples were Super Couples even if Outlander or The Bronze Horseman had been the only books ever written. It’s just that now they feel like family.”

Some couples can become super couples even if their romance is only in one book – if they are part of a continuing series. For example, Karen G nominated Mary and Wolf from Linda Howard’s Mackenzie’s Mountain – not only is this novel hugely popular with many readers, but Mary and Wolf reappeared in several sequels involving their children. Louise nominated Cam and Anna Quinn from Sea Swept, the first of Nora Roberts’ Chesapeake Bay series. However, not all readers agree that these couples qualify. For one thing, not everyone “gets” the Mackenzie books – Mackenzie’s Mountain had a bigger impact on people who were reading series romance at the time it first came out, and LLB, even though she adores Cam and Anna – not only in their story but in Chesapeake Blue, the final book of the series – does not see them as a super couple, although her criterion may be different.

So finding super couples in the typical romance today is hard. Most nominations came from recurring series (both romance and mystery), from the classics, and from very long books. Many of the nominees came from outside of romance – from mysteries, for example. Recurring couples are rare in romances these days, so maybe that’s why there are fewer super couples.

Yet not that long ago, recurring couples were a mainstay of romance fiction. Come back with me to those days of derring-do… Or better yet, go to the next section.

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Bodice-Rippers & Super Couples (Anne Marble)

Not long ago I got nostalgic and decided to look for bodice-rippers. Even though I don’t like alpha jerks and doormat heroines, reading the DIK Review of Wicked Loving Lies – a book I’d originally hated – had me itching to give the book a second chance. Larry Rogers, who wrote the review, didn’t look at the book in the same way I did. He enjoyed it as an epic adventure that managed to combine several romance sub-genres into one. Was that what I had been doing wrong? Was I taking the nasty heroes of bodice-rippers too personally – or too seriously? Was I expecting too much from the heroines? I was ready to give some of these books a second shot, but from a different mindset.

Off to the UBS (and the church book sale) I went. The trunk of my car quickly filled with thick books featuring energetic clinch covers. One of the first things I noticed was that many of the major authors of bodice ripping wrote a series of books that followed the same couple over time. For example, Fern Michaels wrote about Sirena and Regan in at least two books from her van der Rhys series. Valerie Sherwood wrote several series about recurring couples – including the Lenore/Geoffrey series and the Van Ryker series. And Rosemary Rogers brought Steve and Ginny Morgan back multiple times (all told there were four books about Steve and Ginny). Even authors who were just starting out at the time sometimes created recurring couples – Karen Robards’ first two books were historical romances about the same couple. (The second, Sea Fire, was reviewed here; it did not “age” well.)

When I saw some of these series in the UBS, I couldn’t figure out why I’d read so few of them when they were new because I was reading romance back then – even books with “captive” in the title! Then I remembered a conscious decision I’d made at the time not to read books with recurring characters for this reason: I hate seeing couples claim to fall “in love” and then split up again and again, in book after book. Visiting familiar characters can be lots of fun in a mystery or fantasy novel, but in a romance, it often means one thing and one thing only. The hero and heroine keep fighting. About the same old things. That gets depressing. These couples often went through the same troubles, book after book. It would be one thing if they kept getting separated because of monsoons, but as the back covers will bear out, they were often separated because of their own stupidity and jealousy.

On top of that, in some cases, there was no guarantee that the heroine would end up with the same hero in all books. A classic example of is Bertrice Small’s Skye O’Malley series. Another writer who had a recurring heroine (but not necessarily a recurring hero) was Jennifer Wilde (aka Tom Huff), who wrote the Marietta series starting in 1976 with Love’s Tender Fury. (Like so many others, before writing romances, Tom Huff wrote Gothics before writing romances.)

Yet, were these truly romances? I simply don’t see the HEA for these couples. In fact, I think a lot of end-peekers come from this time. They felt screwed when they got to the end of a looong book and found no real HEA. So are these romances, or are they soap operas thrown into adventure stories?

As Kathleen said in an AAR discussion about the HEA, “While in college I read Rosemary Rogers’ books about Virginia and Steve. They met, battled, and fell in love. In the second book they were estranged and then reunited. When I read the third book, another estrangement and reunion, I quit caring about them. The HEA ending of the third book seemed ridiculous because I didn’t have faith that they’d stay together. It may have been a HEA for the characters, but the third time around wasn’t one for me.”

Deborah also has trouble seeing the HEA for recurring characters, who also didn’t care for the multi-book bodice-rippers. It seemed to her that “eventually both the hero and the heroine ended up being unfaithful just to keep the plots going for book after book. I didn’t much like bodice-rippers because of the potential for infidelity and because the heroine usually seemed to end up getting raped by someone (too often the hero) sooner or later. I read Laurie McBain and Kathleen Woodiwiss and skipped most of the rest.” She doesn’t re-read McBain or Woodiwiss, though, because she’s “scared that at least some of them would get awfully close to rape for my taste.” What she remembers, though is that “the McBain and Woodiwiss books felt romantic and kept to one hero/one heroine.”

However, plenty of readers loved the romances with recurring couples. Kestra, for one, misses “some elements of the bodice ripping days… the varied settings, the intense emotion, the high stakes, and the continuing couples.” She appreciated the multi-book format because it gave the reader “time to follow the couple through different phases of their marriage and love relationship, dealing with new stresses and threats. Not always infidelity or another man/woman, but the ravages of war, time, politics, distance.” She points to favorites by authors Valerie Sherwood and Aola Vandergriff, who wrote a “wonderful multibook/multigenerational saga that followed the same three sisters (and their same spouses) from their teens until their deaths at ripe old ages, and the generations that followed them.” This series took the reader from pre-Civil War Texas to Russian Alaska, Hawaii, China, England, France… “and oh, how sweet it was to bring them home again.”

Marguerite also admitted to loving some of the bodice-ripper series, particularly those by Valerie Sherwood, and Ellen Tanner Marsh. But she didn’t care for the Skye O’Malley books, asking: “How many times can you read about women being abducted from Britain and winding up in a harem before you find yourself unable to suspend disbelief?”

The two pioneers of bodice-rippers are said to be Rosemary Rogers (with Sweet Savage Love) and Kathleen Woodiwiss (with The Flame and the Flower). But I don’t think they founded the same family. I think they are two branches that led off into two directions – Rogers with stories of heroes and heroines journeying all over the world and breaking up and having multiple partners and Woodiwiss with stories that were closer to what we think of as romance. Woodiwiss couples are more like the characters in historical novels like Gone with the Wind. Even when they clash, we know they’re supposed to be together. With Steve and Ginny, there is often some doubt.

So where did the bodice ripping tradition come from? One obvious ancestor of these books is Forever Amber, discussed in a 2 1/2 year-old ATBF column. I think that many of the bodice-rippers come from the Forever Amber tradition – a heroine who had multiple partners and faced many perils before finally ending up with her “one true love.” Many people who read Forever Amber today think she could have done much better in the “one true love” department. (I thought the same when I read Wicked Loving Lies.) On the other hand, many readers still love the novel’s epic historical sweep.

Forever Amber was published in the 1940s, but it did have a lasting impact. What else had an impact? Gone with the Wind, of course. GWTW continued to make an impact decades after it was published, and may account, in part, for the popularity of plantation and Civil War settings during the bodice-ripper’s hey-day.

What are some of the other books that were popular just before bodice-rippers hit it big? Family sagas, for one. Because these followed families over several generations, even the happy couples would eventually have to face death. That didn’t stop them from being stirring reads. It’s easy to forget how big these were in the 1970s, especially those set in the American Revolution or Civil War. Okay, raise your hand. How many of you came across your first explicit sex scene in a John Jakes’ novel? I did – remember The Bastard and Jakes’ Kent family series?

And let’s not forget the controversial Mandingo by Kyle Onstott, which came out in the late 1950s. The Falconhurst (or is that Falconhurts ) series grew out of it this book and its sequels, although most of the Falconhurst books were written by other authors. These books were big, graphic novels about life on the plantation, complete with bullwhips, torture and violence, and rape. These weren’t romances, of course – far from it, despite the “soap opera” element. The stress on torture makes most bodice-rippers look tame. Did some of the readers who got their thrills from “plantation” novels later turn to bodice-rippers for the same excitement?

Then there’s the Angelique series by Anne and Serge Golon. These were sprawling historical adventures about a French woman during the time of the Sun King – Louis XIV. Angelique peaked in popularity in the 1960s, were hugely popular and still remembered today (Neil Gaiman mentioned reading them in his AAR interview). But while many UBS’s shelve them under romance, they aren’t really romance novels and have more in common with Forever Amber. In a way, Angelique makes me think of Misery, the heroine created by the writer in Stephen King’s Misery, than a typical romance heroine.

And of course, before bodice-rippers became a hot item, Gothics were huge. What sets a Gothic romance apart from today’s romances? One important difference is that readers often didn’t get to know the hero that well. He was supposed to be enigmatic, so there were no scenes from his point of view. This made the romance one-sided. Even if readers were used to this, some probably wanted a more satisfying read, a more romantic read. However, publishers were used to enigmatic, arrogant, heroes, and most likely, they didn’t think women wanted anything else. Some of the first people to start writing historical romances once the genre became popular came right out of Gothics – in fact, publishers often tried to blend genres in thick Gothic family sagas with “bodice ripping” covers.

Yet even in the days of bodice-rippers, however, there were authors who went beyond the old traditions and created something brand new. For all the criticism many of today’s romance readers give her, I think Kathleen Woodiwiss deserves credit for forging a new path for writers with The Flame and the Flower. Sure, Heather was TSTL, and Brandon raped her, but at the same time, they stuck together, and they managed to keep their HEA within the pages of a single book. (There was a direct sequel nearly 20 years later – Elusive Flame – but it was about their son Beau.)

At this time, other writers who did the same include: Jennifer Blake, Laurie McBain, Shirlee Busbee… writers who became known more for being romantic than for writing continuing series.

Sure bodices were ripped, sometimes quite forcefully, and separations were long, but at least writers showed more of a relationship. On the other hand… you still had the sounds of bodices being ripped, heroes being slapped, and the sight of heroines being tossed onto bed. And many readers hated that. I know that even when I read these books, I was often frustrated by the annoying Big Mis plots and TSTL characters. I yearned for something different but wasn’t sure what is was.

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Bodice-Rippers Versus Romances (Anne Marble)

Even if bodice-rippers were still popular today, would some of these books continue to be considered romances? Some of today’s basic “ground rules” don’t apply. Not only did the hero have multiple sex partners, but in many of these, so did the heroines. Rape was common, of course, as was violence. (Christine Monson’s Stormfire, which was recently discussed on one of AAR’s message boards, is a great example. Ouch.) The hero and heroine often spent time apart, and when they were together, they tended to fight. Not only that, but they often fought over the same arguments. (“But I didn’t betray you, I swear!” “Shut up.”)

In the 1980s, Janice R. Radway published Reading the Romance, an academic study of romances. While her study (which is discussed in Issue 91 of ATBF is now considered dated, I did find one common thread that applies. An important finding in the study was the differences between “successful” and “failed” romances. Radway believed that to be a successful romance, a book had to meet certain criteria. I think the readers she was interviewing simply realized what it has taken me twenty years and a lot of verbiage to figure out – some bodice-rippers are romances, and some are simply bodice-rippers.

Romance readers in the Radway study rated their favorite romances. At the time, these books included Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower and The Wolf and the Dove, Johanna Lindsey’s Fires of Winter, and Laurie McBain’s Moonstruck Madness. Yes, these books are quite different from the romances we find most beloved today (check out the Romance Readers’ Top 100 Romances from 2000. But they are also much different from, say, the Steve and Ginny books or (ouch) Stormfire. And these readers knew this.

Heck, when I read the descriptions of some bodice-rippers, I ask, “What were the publishers thinking?” Sometimes it seems as if they knew romances were popular, but they didn’t know what made one book a bodice-ripping romance and made another merely a bodice-ripper. They could have just asked! (It worked for Radway.) But instead, they experimented with different forms, and some really odd books came out of that era.

Also, many of the authors who penned these books came from different traditions – such as family sagas or Gothics. So they didn’t know what to put in a romance. Fan the Wanton Flame by Clarissa Ross started out with a throwaway scene about the heroine eagerly losing her virginity to a childhood sweetheart who never showed up again. Did the publishers not realize that many of their readers didn’t like that sort of scene? Did Ross (who was really Dan Ross, better known for Gothics and mysteries), think that was what his readers wanted? Even before that, I read a book called Prince of Passion by Rita Balkey, which included the classic scenes of rape, a long separation, and that old standby, the heroine forced into becoming a prostitute. (The scene where she put some, uhm, pep back in the life of a formerly impotent noble by giving him what amounted to a wet shift contest was kind of funny when I think back on it….)

And then it came. What? Well, authors like Karen Robards and Joanna Lindsey started writing romances that were different from their earliest books. Then along came Judith Devaraux. Oh, and Judith McNaught – as controversial as Whitney, My Love is, as big as the misunderstandings were, Clay and Whitney were nothing like Steve and Ginny. And then even newer writers joined the fray, such as Julie Garwood and Mary Jo Putney, and the field was never the same after that. Readers started voting with their pocketbooks, and finally, the publishers must have figured out what romance readers wanted.

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Eek, that Term!

And just because I know someone is going to bring this up… why use the term “bodice-ripper”? Haven’t a lot of ignorant critics used that term to denigrate romances? Sure, but I’m not going to let their ignorance get in my way. I’d rather revel in the term then let them control what I’m going to say. If I want to read a bodice-ripper, I’m going to call it a bodice-ripper. If I’m going to read a romance that’s not a bodice-ripper, then I’m going to call it a romance, and if anyone is uniformed enough to call it a “bodice-ripper,” I’ll know they are an uneducated ruffian.

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You Gotta Have a Gimmick – or Do You? (Robin Uncapher)

In the musical Gypsy a group of strippers get together to explain to Gypsy and her mother Rose that talent is not the only thing that will make her a star. In the song You Gotta Getta Gimmick, written by Stephen Sondheim, they demonstrate what they mean singing:

You can pull all the stops out
Till they call the cops out
Grind your behind till you’re banned.
But you gotta get a gimmick
If you wanna get a hand.
You can sacrifice your sacro
Working in the back row.
Bump in a dump till you’re dead.
Kid you gotta have a gimmick
If you wanna get ahead.
You can uh…You can uh…
You can uh…uh…uh…
That’s how Burlesque was born.
So I uh…and I uh…
And I uh…uh…uh…
But I do it with a horn…
Once I was a Schleppa,
Now I’m Miss Mazzeppa,
With my revolution in dance.
You gotta have a gimmick
If you wanna have a chance!

The funny thing about gimmicks is that they are not always easy to spot but like that judge said about watching porn, “I know it when I see it.” With gimmicks I would change that to, “I know it when I see it, sometimes.”

Reading a book with a problem sometimes reminds me of coming down with a cold. You know there is something wrong but can’t quite put your finger on it. From paragraph to paragraph the book seems fine. It’s clever, sometimes insightful. The characters, on the face of it, are intelligent, complex and believable. So why do you keep putting the book down? Why, when halfway through the book, do you wonder why you started it in the first place?

When this happens to me I go looking for a review that might help clear up the mystery. If a reviewer loved my dull book things might get better. Is there something I’m missing? If the reviewer thinks there is, I might be persuaded to keep reading. But if the reviewer was disappointed with the book she may give me an idea of what went wrong. Knowing what went wrong is as comforting to me as finding out that things are about to get better. Which is why I went looking for the New York Times review of Nick Hornsby’s How to be Good. I’d very much enjoyed his About a Boy, which not only featured lots of laughs, but a love story. How did his latest compare?

How to be Good is a humorous book told in the first person of Kate, a married London doctor with a depressingly grouchy husband, David. Though she is a 30-something working mother with a voice so bright and irreverent it reminded me of Chick Lit. Kate is overworked, alienated from her children and is married to a man who has not one good thing to say to her. She has begun an affair with a man she doesn’t care about mainly to avoid thinking about the hopelessness of her life. This part of the story – Kate’s exhaustion, her depression over her marriage and meaningless affair – completely absorbed me.

David is more than just your usual grouch. He writes a humorous column, ‘The Angriest Man in Holloway,” thus making use of his bad temper the way say Andy Rooney does. Though Kate has had enough of David’s whining, I found him kind of fun and wondered about Kate’s own sense of humor.

Then, in a twist of the story, David quite suddenly decides to “be good.” after meeting Good News, a man who advises him to reform. He starts doing things like giving away his money to homeless people on the street, next he is giving his children’s computers away and offering a home to Good News. He plans a neighborhood party where he will suggest that everyone take in a homeless person. The hook of this is that David is not just good. He is good in a very pro Labor party kind of way. He assumes that all poor homeless people are poor and homeless for good reason. He doesn’t worry about the safety of allowing a poor homeless stranger live in his house with his children or whether the panhandler he gives all his money to might be a scam artist with an apartment in another neighborhood.

The upshot of all of this is to make “goodness” seem pretty silly. For example, one sign of David’s new found goodness is that he impulsively gives his son’s computer to a homeless shelter. Kate, who is smart enough to be a doctor, can’t understand why she finds this upsetting. As a good liberal, she believes in doing things like giving computers to homeless shelters. And yet she’s not happy when her husband suddenly gives away this very expensive present she gave her son. David’s act “seems” like a good thing to do – why does it bother her? I wanted to jump into the book and remind Kate of George Will’s adage that nothing is easier than spending someone else’s money, or in this case, giving away someone else’s toys.

But what was really the matter with this book? Wasn’t the premise at least mildly interesting? In search of some kind of answer I read Janet Maslin’s review. Just as I had hoped, Maslin put her finger on the problem. She points out that the book has “an attention getting gimmick at its heart,” adding, “In the case of How to be Good, that gimmick is the change of heart experienced by a grouch named David Carr, to the dismay of his wife and children. David throws the whole household out of whack when he decides to become a man of virtue.”

This idea brought me up short. Was the book was based on a gimmick that wasn’t working? It made me think. How to be Good is about an annoying man who mysteriously becomes good and becomes, if possible, even more annoying. The author seems to be trying to say that goodness can be annoying but the book doesn’t demonstrate that. The book demonstrates that someone who reforms from being a selfish complainer might reform into being a selfish do-gooder and that neither one is fun to read about.

I returned Hornsby’s book to the library, never to be sought again, (though I was very sorry when I began this ATBF as I was unable to draw some very funny quotes from its opening pages.) I began to think about what Janet Maslin had written about the book being based on a gimmick. How often had I read romance novels based on a gimmick that didn’t pan out? Although this wasn’t true of every romance novel that did not work for me, it did seem to work for some.

My mind was drawn back to Linda Needham’s book The Maiden Bride, which I reviewed in 2000. That book was another example of a gimmick that didn’t pan out. Needham inserted a silly, light-hearted situation into a book about survivors of the Black Death. When the heroine arrives at the depopulated manor of her supposedly dead husband, I was reminded more of TLC’s While You Were Out than a Medieval romance. Looking around the castle and seeing so few survivors, she says, “All it needs is a little paint.”

The reason The Maiden Bride didn’t work was that the plot felt like a gimmick. It didn’t fit the situation, the times or the way that one would expect survivors of the Black Death to behave. But the funny thing is this: I love TLC’s While You Were Out – had Needham’s book been about a woman fixing up a dilapidated 1970s kitchen it might have worked for me.

The word “gimmick” has a variety of definitions. It can be “a device meant to deceive,” “an innovative scheme designed to promote,” or “an ingenious and usually new scheme or angle.” Are other readers bothered by gimmicks in romance novels?

For Candace, it all depends on how well the gimmick is integrated into the story. She wrote, “If it’s done well, you may view it as the second definition. When done badly, you may deride it as ‘gimmicky.’ She added that gimmicks are hooks to get a readers attention, and “like any other marketing ploy, sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. A book becomes ‘gimmicky’ when it never goes beyond the hook, or if the hook is in the middle of an otherwise mediocre story.”

Cindy brought up the Bridget Jones phenomenon. While she hasn’t read the book, she knows the entire story is told through her journal entries. This doesn’t appeal to Cindy, who prefers showing to telling, and finishes her argument with this: “Journals are a telling of events and the furor of the moment has passed once the journalist gets time to set pen to paper.”

This is an interesting idea. Writing a novel as a diary is certainly not new. Its only a small jump from reading a novel written in the first person to reading one written as a diary. But if the reader doesn’t feel drawn into the story writing a novel like a diary would certainly feel like a gimmick. Bridget’s recording her weight, number of cigarette’s smoked and times she pressed the British equivalent of *69 are different and, to me, clever additions to the story. But I can see how they might feel like a gimmick to someone not charmed by them.

To me a gimmick is a plot that puts the hero and heroine into a seemingly unnatural situation. The old sitcom My Mother the Car always seemed like a gimmick to me. Not long ago I found myself trying to explain this show to my daughter. “There was this average, everyday guy who suddenly found that his car, a 1928 Porter, could talk. His mother had been reincarnated as a car. The show didn’t really work because it’s hard to work a car into an indoor scene”

The more I considered Maslin’s comments, the more I agreed with them. How often do people completely change character? Or more to the point, Hornsby had not convinced me that it could happen, so it felt like a gimmick. A character who changes his personality can be interesting. One who changes character overnight had better have a pretty good reason or a very good writer telling the story.

But Cindy made it clear that while a gimmick might sometimes be annoying, a catchy idea really can get your attention and make you go looking for a book. She wrote: “Also, I am currently trying to find a book that I think is called ‘e’. It is a story told through e-mails. I think it is supposed to be a comedy which would help with the breaking of action for me. ”

Sarah picked up on this and pointed out some other books written in this format. Was an e-mail book a gimmick? Sarah wrote, “I’ve encountered a few stories told through email messages. Boy Next Door by Meggin Cabot and Jane Green’s Jemima J are both told exclusively or mostly through email exchanges. I think the idea is fascinating since my Master’s thesis examines how people communicate differently when using email – but as a writing gimmick, it almost worked for me. Most of the time. But I guess since the ‘diary’ gimmick is so overdone, folks are turning to email as a new form of storytelling.”

LLB mentioned several excellent Young Adult novels written in journal format. Instead of seeming gimmicky, they seemed fresh and vibrant, particularly Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging series and Catherine Clark’s Truth or Diary. On the other hand, she does find other premises or devices gimmicky, including the will stipulation and marriage of convenience, particularly in contemporary settings.

Other readers mentioned some other books based on what they saw as gimmicks. Margaret mentioned Jane Heller’s The Secret Ingredient, in which “a wife gives her husband a potion to change him back into the man she first met – she feels that he has let himself go.” While she found the book interesting and humorous, with some surprise twists, she didn’t like the wife and felt sorry for the husband.

Tacat looks for books with new and different plots and is sometimes disappointed to find that stories in the books don’t always live up to their blurbs. She’s been burned by some Blaze stories because of this and wrote, “I pick up a story according to the blurb on the back, and that plot point is resolved in the first chapter, never to be seen again. I get interested in wondering how on earth an author is going to keep a story line going, only to find out that she drops the story line, and goes in a different direction.” For her, a couple of books featuring unusual plots that followed through the initial premise are Nerd in Shining Armour by Vicki Lewis Thomas and Guilty Little Secrets by Connie Lane. Less successful was Julie Kenner’s Secret Confessions because the “hook” is not what she remembers most about the book.

Many romance plots have things I might think of as gimmicks except that they are standard romance devices. Marriages of convenience and arranged marriages often have explanations that would sound like gimmicks if the books were in other genres. I know that I am immensely forgiving of gimmicky marriages of convenience and arranged marriages in historicals while being picky about them in contemporaries. Pat Coughlin’s Merely Married, is one of the few historicals I can think of that went over the top for me, mainly because the hero married the heroine when he thought she was dying, which did not seem quite sporting to me. Mary Jo Putney’s The Burning Point contains a will specification plot device that would be acceptable in a historical but did not ring true in a contemporary. I have always wondered if Putney’s experience in historicals was what made her comfortable with that device in a contemporary and if she would do it again.

Those who know me know that I can be picky about historical accuracy, but it was a revelation to me to realize how much more forgiving I am with historicals when it comes to gimmicks. My favorite contemporary writers – Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, and Linda Howard don’t seem to resort to them very often. Rachel Gibson, another favorite, does throw her heroes and heroines into some surprising situations, as in Lola Carlyle Reveals All, but perhaps because they are funny, they don’t seem gimmicky to me.

Can you think of some plots in romance books that seemed like gimmicks? Were any of those books your favorites? Are there some authors who can pull off a gimmick better than others? I would love to hear.

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Conversion Kits (LLB)

If your friend’s favorite film is My Dinner with Andre, if she prefers to watch Jon Favreau’s Dinner for Five and asks for a good book to read, you’re probably not going to suggest The Call of the Wild but will instead suggest something about “characters” that is also rich in dialogue.

While it pays to know your audience, I also believe that certain books can be recommended to just about anyone if they represent the genre well and are well-written. As I mentioned last time, my conversion kit goal is to provide the general reader with excellent yet traditional types of romance so that a feel for the genre comes across, but in its best light. Rather than including ground-breaking or envelope-pushing romances – unless they set a standard now common, I prefer to choose great reads that take common premises, characters, or storylines and make them seem fresh through excellent characterization, vivid writing, or rich historical detail (without going overboard). A couple of “break-through” romances made my list, but most are “traditional.” Many are DIK’s for me, but some are not – certain categories needed “fleshing out,” variety, or were thisclose to DIK status and therefore worthy of inclusion.

I’ve revised my old conversion kit. It now contains the following books, from which I plan to pick and choose, depending upon the reader:


This list was far harder to put together than you might imagine, and if it seems I’ve hedged my bets and not narrowed it enough, perhaps you’re right. I thought it would be best to create a large group of books, then narrow them down when the time comes to create an individualized kit. There are no romantic suspense titles on my list – sorry, I don’t read them – but I believe I every other sub-genre is included. Some books stand out for their humor, sadness, or sex appeal, others for their prose, characterization, or historical detail. In at least one instance I substituted a B+ read for a DIK by the same author because I felt the former more suited to a “newbie” romance reader. If a sub-genre looked heavy in dark or light titles, I added others to keep the balance, and did the same if it seemed that only “old” titles were included. I also kept myself from including too many titles by authors who have written multiple DIK’s for me – only two Garwoods, one Coulter, and one Roberts are on the list – and I made a concerted effort to include a number of mid-list authors. I frankly feel guilty for not including every author who earned DIK status from me on this list, but since I maintain a list of my personal DIK’s online elsewhere, I decided to let it go.

We began to talk about conversion kits last time, and will continue it with the next issue of ATBF. Which means there’s still time to have your comments and kits included if you haven’t already posted them. I hope you will.

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Time to Post to the Message Board

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

Tragedy and the Super Couple – There are obviously different criterion used by different readers when considering what type of couple is a super couple. Jen introduced some last time; this time LLB adds to the mix the idea that true super couples are doomed by tragedy, which means you won’t find them in romance novels. What do you make of this idea? And, looking at it in a different way, are tragic couples more likely to be remembered as super couples, and if so, why?  Film and Television versus the Novel – Some readers believe that if a couple, first written about in a book, but later featured in a movie or mini-series, is equally or perhaps better known for their filmed portrayal, they are not truly a super couple. What do you think? And, how many times have you been induced to read a book after having seen the movie/mini-series? What about the converse?  Which books taught and/or inspired you? The Bodice-Ripper – If you read “bodice-rippers” when they were popular, did you read the books about continuing characters, such as the Steve and Ginny books? Did you ever find yourself doubting the HEA for couples in these books – or for that matter, in any “bodice-rippers?” More on the Bodice-Ripper – How do you define a “bodice ripper”? Do you define them as long books with epic sweep, multiple settings, arrogant heroes, melodrama, and rape and/or violence? Or do you define them as any romances with arrogant heroes who boss around (and even rape) the heroine continuously?  Gotta Define a Gimmick – What’s your definition of a gimmick? Is it always a negative thing, or only when it fails? What’s your reaction when you find one in a romance novel? Do you always see it or is it sometimes a “catchy idea” – ie, a successful gimmick. Do you ever read a review looking for an answer to what bothered you about a book, or even why you liked it? Gimmickry – Robin believes that gimmicks put heroes and heroines in unnatural situations. Is this the romance publishing world’s version of a “high-concept movie?” Leaving secret babies, cowboys, and novels in journal form aside, what are some other gimmicks you’ve seen in romance novels? Which were successful, which were not? Is there a plot or premise you’d like to read in a romance but have not been able to find it in a book? Know Your Audience – When you set out to create a newbie romance reader, how much do you consider their personal tastes? Do you simply give them a few of your favorite romances or do you tailor the selection to suit them? Romance at its Best – LLB believes that it’s better to “convert” a reader to romance through great “traditional” romances rather than through the latest ground-breaking, envelope-pushing romance. What’s your take on this idea? Which of your favorite romances fit that criteria? Do you have any favorites that you would not use to convert a reader, and if so, why not? Taking Stock – If you’ve actually got a conversion kit, when was the last time you changed its contents? Do you buy second copies of certain books rather than loaning out a beloved romance? What’s currently in your kit?


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