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Treat yourself to the AAR bookbag!

January 1 , 2004 – Issue #173

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:


Happy New Year! In addition to taking a look back at my reading year, pitiful though it was, Jennifer Keirans, Linda Hurst, and I will be talking about a romance novel premise we’ve curiously never talked about before, or given a name… until now. I’ll save that name for the column itself. Then we’ll talk about mean moms, with some help from Sandy Coleman. For those wondering, in the next issue of ATBF Robin will kick off our annual reader poll with her yearly look at the year’s buried treasures.

My Year in (Non) Reading (Laurie Likes Books)

In 2002 I read more than 90 books, was quite pleased about it, and planned to read 100 books in 2003. My reading year started out great… until the six week period when war in Iraq consumed my focus. I never quite got back on track after that, and ended the year reading “only” 76 books. The “only” is in quotes because unless I’m speaking with another bookie, the response I get to saying I’m bummed about reading only 76 books is one of utter and total amazement. But for me it sucks; this is the worst reading year I’ve had since 1998. What’s worse is that I read just as many F’s this year as I did A’s (last year, surprisingly, I read no F books). On the plus side, I did read three DIK-worthy books, well, one was a re-read of The Phantom Tollbooth, but two were brand new reads for me, one a YA book from 2002 and the other, thanks to Ellen Micheletti, Nonnie St. George’s traditional Regency, The Ideal Bride.

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It’s tough to complain about my level of reading enjoyment in 2003 given that more than half the books I read earned grades of B- or higher, even though nearly half the B’s I awarded were B-‘s.

Just over half (51%) the books I read were published in 2003 and 55% of my 2003 reads were romances.

I may actually have read the highest percentage of B’s I’ve ever read, but I don’t feel this tells the whole story. So many of those B’s are for YA books and older Regencies and non-romances, that if I were to go back and recalculate, I would need to eliminate 11 of the 12 YA books, three of the four horror novels, and much of the non-genre fiction I read just to get at the number of romances I read and enjoyed.

Something I very definitely noticed this year was that some of my favorite contemporaries had a strong Women’s Fiction-y feel to them. One featured the traditional troika of female characters, friends since youth, while the other, which focused more or less on one couple, had less of a genre feel to it even though it most definitely had an HEA ending. The former is Dee Holmes’ Coming Home; the latter is Barbara Bretton’s Girls of Summer, which was very nearly my favorite new romance of the year… until I read and fell in love with The Ideal Bride.

Given that much of my reading was “out of the box” this year, I thought I’d re-cap the highlights, although discussion of Bretton’s and St. George’s books will occur in a future ATBF that focuses on 2003’s romances. This section is definitely light on romance, but that’s kind of how my year went. And, I don’t want to repeat myself in upcoming ATBF’s that Robin and Blythe prepare annually. So what you’ll find below are my favorite non-romance reads of 2003 as well as the single, older romance I enjoyed most.

Blackwood Farm by Anne Rice (2002) My grade: B+

It’s safe to say I’ve read Anne Rice’s entire oeuvre with the exception of The Feast of All Saints, which I’ve never been able to finish. I’ve granted four of her books DIK status and two earned F’s. Four of her novels earned D’s, two earned C’s, and seven earned B’s from me. In other words, she’s all over the place, but since she hadn’t written a really good book for a while, I didn’t have terribly high hopes for Blackwood Farm. She surprised me; it was a very good read.

Readers of Anne Rice know that she’s been writing about vampires and witches for some time, but it wasn’t until the wholly unsatisfying Merrick that she brought them together. She continues along that path in Blackwood Farm, with far greater success. Rice writes with such wonderful imagery, and the combination of vampires, witches, Louisiana, and the South is incredibly vivid in this story of Tarquin Blackwood, the 22-year-old heir to Blackwood Farm. As with many of Rice’s books, this one is written in “as told to” form, and Quinn tells his story to Lestat, Rice’s most famous vampire. Quinn’s life has revolved not only around his family and Blackwood Farm, but with a spirit named Goblin. Secrets abound, as does eroticism (male/female, male/male spirit, male/female spirit).

Rice’s style is lush but the content can be creepy for the uninitiated. The Mayfair Witch series has been quite a bit more sexual than her Vampire Chronicles, although there’s been plenty of homo-erotic undertones in the latter series. Where the two meet is far more overtly sexual than any but her B&D novels, so if it bothers you to read about sex with spirits and young girls, this may not be for you.

While the ending is abrupt, Rice set things up nicely for the next book, which was released in October 2003. (That next book, Blood Canticle, was incredibly disappointing, and ends the Vampire Chronicles with a whimper.)

Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore (1996) My grade: B+

 Bloodsucking Fiends is a damn funny vampire novel featuring the 26-year-old Jody, turned into a vampire for unknown reasons, and C. Thomas Flood, the younger man she chooses to be her companion. Flood is an aspiring author who left the safety and succor of his home in the mid-West (after convincing his family and their friends that those who read are not necessarily gay) because, as his father told him, writers must suffer. After living with five Chinamen named Wong who keep leaving him flowers, he gets a job as night manager of a local supermarket (his employees – the Animals – play a mean game of Turkey Ball) and meets up with Jody, who invites him to live with her immediately.

Though he’s disappointed that she doesn’t know everything vampiric (and some of what he believes to be true about vampires by reading books as varied as The Vampire Lestat and Dracula is not), they form a relationship only to be threatened by Jody’s vampire maker, who seems to be framing either or both for murders. The story itself isn’t a suspenseful one – but it’s not supposed to be. It’s simply supposed to be funny and hip and succeeds admirably. One of the best aspects of the book is that Jody is written incredibly well; it was after reading this book that I was inspired to write an ATBF segment on how well men write women, and vice versa.

The behavior and antics of the homeless Emperor of San Francisco are sad and funny at the same time (he has an odd sort of dignity that grows when the reader discovers that while he’s a few coffee beans short of a full cup of cappuccino, he’s not entirely loony), round out this wonderful story. If you like funny, pop culture, and vampires, this one is a definite hit

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris (2003) My grade: B+

This is the third in Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series that are part vampire, part mystery, and part non-genre romance. While the “monsters,” as AAR’s Rachel Potter likes to call them, in this series are similar to those created by Laurell K. Hamilton in her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, the two series differ tremendously in gore, sexual content, and tone. In Club Dead, the humorous undertone is stronger than ever.

Sookie Stackhouse, a small-town, white-trash Louisiana waitress, suffers from a disability – she hears other people’s thoughts. Not only does this make it difficult for her to block out what’s going on in other people’s heads, the locals think she’s a weirdo. In the first book in this series, she meets up with Bill, a good-guy vampire who served in the Civil War. Unlike Anita Blake, whose job requires her to come into contact with various monsters, bad stuff just seem to happen to Sookie – even before Bill came along. But after Bill, it’s both bad stuff and monsters, which, as you know, can be a deadly combination.

Only Harris lightens it up with her characters. Take Bubba, for instance, a vampire first featured earlier in the series. Readers know that he’s Elvis… only he’s a vampire. But in this book we learn how he became a vampire, which isn’t necessarily funny itself, but it explains why he’s so addlepated. He also is more “human” in this book and less of a total nut job. I guarantee the moment he utters, “Thank you. Thank you very much,” you’ll hear Elvis in your head.

Something else that is markedly different between Sookie and Anita is that while the former does have a supernatural skill – she’s a telepath – she’s also far more human than Anita’s ever been. She’s not superhuman, her feelings get hurt, she worries about how her bills are going to get paid, etc. And, the supernatural beings around her are less threatening – “vampire and werewolf light” – as it were.

Many romance readers had trouble with Bill and his behavior in this book, and perhaps the romance lover in me isn’t entirely satisfied with the romantic thread in Club Dead, but Sookie ‘s solution to her “man” problems at the very end, made me LOL and keenly anticipate the next book in this series.

Fair Game by Dianne Farr (1999) My grade: B+

 Readers who back away from traditional Regencies because there is no explicit sexuality might reconsider this stance if they read Fair Game, one of the most unusual Regency Romances I’ve ever read. Unfortunately for readers like me who like the length of the traditional Regency, the author has moved on to writing full-length historicals. But I can still savor what’s left of her trad backlist that I haven’t yet read.

Farr showed great versatility in her trads; Once Upon a Christmas and Falling for Chloe are both charming and fun, but with Fair Game Farr created a very dark Regency. Heroine Clarissa Feeney is the daughter of an infamous courtesan and hero Trevor Whitlatch is the third son of a vicar who made a fortune in shipping and essentially buys the girl to erase her mother’s debt.

Whitlatch is no saint – he doesn’t take Clarissa under his protection to “save her;” he plans to set her up as his mistress in the country under his terms. He’ll treat her decently and when they’re finished with each other, they’ll each go on their merry way. The stunningly beautiful Clarissa is a total innocent – born on the wrong side of the blanket to an aristocratic father who “did the right thing” after her birth by ensconcing her in a series of genteel schools – she is forced to leave her most recent home after the headmistress (who was more of a mother to her than her own) who trained her as a teacher dies without leaving a will. With nowhere to turn, she decamps at her mothers, only to be treated like a prisoner until she is told to pack her things and go with the gentleman.

Though Trevor fancies himself a realist, once he spies Clarissa’s beauty, he knows he must have her. He believes she is merely a crafty harlot instead of the innocent she is, although it doesn’t take all that long for him to realize she’s been gently reared. But that doesn’t change his plan, which is the beauty of the novel. For most of the book he determines that he shall eventually make her his mistress after he convinces her that without references, she won’t be hired as a governess, and that her beauty would dissuade her hire even if she had references. Readers looking for marvelous anti-heroes can find few better than Trevor, who manages to make himself believe that Clarissa’s being a governess or even the wife of a country vicar wouldn’t be as “good” as his giving her carte blanche and then setting her up for life somewhere.

I can point to several reviews at AAR deploring this type of behavior in a hero, and I’ve found it deplorable myself, but Farr makes it work here. This one’s worth looking for even though it’s several years old at this point.

Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin (2003) My grade: B+

 I’ve been reading Trillin since the early 1980’s; he’s a brilliantly funny writer, wry, dry, creative, cranky, and adventuresome. His food-related books haven’t always been my favorite, but Feeding a Yen features behavior with which I’m sure most bookies are familiar – that would be obsessiveness in the face of what you love. Indeed, I’m so obsessive about Trillin in particular that I own every book he’s ever written and shelve them in a small shrine in our den..

In Feeding a Yen, Trillion writes about his Register of Frustration and Deprivation – ie, the foodstuffs that exist only in specific locations and can never truly be duplicated elsewhere. I can honestly say that at least half the items on his register are things I would never even consider eating, and yet I understood his frustration, based not only on measuring every Indian restaurant against the curry I ate in England when I was 16 to various books I’ve read in various places that hold special placemarks in my mind. And to those books that “got away,” those books I read at one time or another and didn’t keep, resulting in years-long searches to rediscover their names and buy copies.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961) My grade: DIK

 I love this book because it’s a word-lover’s book. Most of us read because we love stories, but it’s a bonus to read a book that is written for “wordies,” which is what I call readers like myself who love words. The story begins when a boy named Milo, who is as bored at school as he is at home, discovers an enormous package in his bedroom that is “not quite square…definitely not round, and for its size it was larger than almost any other big package of small dimension that he’d ever seen.” After he assembles the parts from the package, he gets into an old toy car, drops one of two tokens in the purple tollbooth, and is off on the adventure of a lifetime. Should he not be satisfied with his journey, his “wasted time will be refunded.”

This is not like any other book you’ve read. Were I ever shipwrecked on that proverbial desert isle, this is one of the books I’d want with me, to revisit Expectations, the Doldrums, to meet up again with Tock and the Humbug, Rhyme and Reason in their prison of the Castle of Air, re-tracing their steps through Point of View, Illusions and Reality, the Valley of Sound, the Sea of Knowledge, and Digitopolis before once again climbing the Mountain of Ignorance.

Each of these lands is a delight to visit. In Dictionopolis people don’t simply say something is big. Instead, it’s large, gigantic, enormous, gargantuan, huge, tremendous – after all, if one word is good, many must be better. Shopping for words or letters at the Word Market is something more fun than I can describe…have you ever wondered how an “A” would taste? Milo’s visit with Alec Bing in Point of View is one of my favorite parts of the book. Alec is roughly Milo’s age, but in Point of View, people don’t grow from the ground up, they grow from the air down so that their point of view never changes. Alec sees through things, which can make it difficult to see what’s in front of his nose. His father sees to things, his mother looks after them, etc, and it’s this type of wordplay that fills the pages of The Phantom Tollbooth. There’s much, much more to the story of Milo rescuing the princesses so that they may bring peace to the once friendly cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, but since a great deal of the joy of discovery is in the words, it’s best to leave that for you to find out for yourself.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2002)                        The Second Summer of the Sisterhood (2003)

My Grade :DIK                                               My Grade:B+

Though sold as YA novels, the level of writing and feelings evoked throughout reading these books are sophisticated enough to satisfy adult readers; it’s not at all a put-down to say these books remind me of the very best of Women’s Fiction, simply written with younger characters. AAR Reviewer Colleen McMahon and I plan to write a sort of dual DIK at some point in the future, but I’ll provide a brief synopsis here. In the first book, four 15-year-old girls are about to go their separate ways for summer break. One of the girls notices a pair of jeans in the closet of another of the girls and tries them on – they fit better than could be imagined. Imagine the surprise of all the girls when each one tries them on – all with very different bodies – and the thrift-shop jeans look great on everyone. And so they set up rules for the jeans and decide to trade off wearing them all summer long. Each of the girls goes through a crisis that summer, and the pants initially don’t seem to have the “magic” they’d expected, but as the summer wears on, their lives change in surprising ways. Given the mouths on these girls, you might expect a lighter read than delivered, but this one is a two-hanky book, at least.

In the sequel, it’s the next summer, and a whole new set of issues to be dealt with for all four girls. If each of the girls began the journey toward adulthood that first summer, they journey even farther during the second summer. Bridget, who began a quite uncomfortable metamorphosis in the first summer at soccer camp is able to find peace, herself, and her place in the world by the end of the second summer. Lena, the beauty who should have had the easiest time of them all, faces love and loss and, at the end, finds hope after all. Film-maker Tibby learns, as Avril would say, that when trying to be cool, you look like a fool to your true friends and family. And Carmen, a daughter of divorce, continues to struggle in finding her place in her mother’s new life (in the first book she struggled to find her place in her father’s new life).

While all four friends-since-birth have taken incredible journeys throughout these two summers, their journeys are not complete. I hope there will be a third summer for the friends, and I’ll be sure to have the Kleenex handy.

The Big Assumption (Laurie Likes Books, Jennifer Keirans, & Linda Hurst)

In a classic episode of television’s The Odd Couple entitled My Strife in Court, Felix Unger represents Oscar Madison and himself after they’ve been arrested for ticket scalping. During cross-examination, after the witness says, “Well, I just assumed…” he is interrupted by Felix, who writes “ASSUME” on a chalkboard. Then he recites the famous line: “When you assume, you make an ASS of U and ME.”

Romance novels are known for Big Secrets and Big Misunderstandings. I’d like to add another “Big” – Big Assumptions. You may not know it, but you’ve surely read big assumptions in romances. Ever read a romance where the hero automatically assumes the heroine is a whore or a golddigger because all women are whores or golddiggers? What about a romance in which the hero is thought to have killed his first wife or started a fire to eliminate competition for a woman, a fortune, or a title? These are all Big Assumptions. Where the Big Assumption is about a woman, it tends to be generalized – about all women. Where the Big Assumption is about men, though, it tends to be specific to that man. And in either instance, the Big Assumption is often in tandem with the Big Misunderstanding (or the Big Secret), but until now I don’t think we’ve ever really given it a name.

The idea for the Big Assumption came from a thread on one of our message boards. A poster asked whether Elizabeth Lowell was the queen of the Big Misunderstandings, and used A Woman Without Lies to support her contention. My response was that in A Woman Without Lies the plot device was more a big assumption than a big misunderstanding, and that, further, Diana Palmer was whom I would consider queen of the Big Mis. At AAR we’re not in agreement on just which author, Palmer or Lowell, is the Queen of the Big Assumption.

Miles aka Hawk Hawkins was mistreated his entire life by the women around him. His mother, grandmother, first lover – you name it, each was either mean or a skanky, slutty bitch who used him, then flushed him away like so much dirty toilet paper. So when he meets the lovely glass maker Angel Lange, he assumes the worst. She must be a whore, an actress who gets what she wants from men by sleeping with them, lying to them, and using them. He decides nearly immediately that he’s going to treat her badly pretty much for the enjoyment of it, although he thinks he’s doing it as a favor to a young man he thinks is involved with Angel. The fact is that she is the opposite of what he thinks; the back cover copy pretty much says it all: “She was a woman without lies. He was a man who had never found truth.”

I re-read the book this week and bookmarked all the pages where his big assumption rears its ugly head. There are many. I’m going to share some with you now, beginning with the first four, which are all found on a two-page section near the start of the book:

She flitted from man to man and feeling to feeling like the pretty, mindless butterfly she was.
“Women like you have so many true loves they can’t tell the players without a scorecard.”
It rankled that she should look so aloof, so untouched, when she was just like every other woman – emptiness and lies.
He decided then that he was going to have her. And when he was finished, he would strip her of her bright facade.
It didn’t surprise him that she was an accomplished cook. Men liked being cooked for, and Angel was obviously a woman who had made a career out of pleasing men.
He was irritated by the transparency of Angel’s ploy in dangling her deep-voiced admirer in front of him.

There are additional instances, but these are perhaps the most egregious in terms of Hawk’s assumption about Angel. It takes him a long time – perhaps too long for some readers – to believe the truth, but by the time the book ends, all is forgiven. This is not my favorite Elizabeth Lowell, but there’s (at least) one Big Assumption in many of my favorites, including Too Hot to Handle, Love Song for a Raven, and Chain Lightning, as well as in other Lowell titles I liked less, such as Outlaw. I had a less positive reaction to A Woman Without Lies when I first read it, but on my second and third reads, I simply went with the “perfect woman condemned and tortured by a cynical, unloved man until her goodness unlocked his heart” flow and enjoyed it far more. In an odd paradox, what actually counteracts all of Hawk’s cruelty is Angel’s steadfast goodness and the slow reveal of the pain she’s been through, well, that and Lowell’s trademark purple prose, which for some reason works for me more often than not:

“To be alive is to eat,” said Angel, her shadowed eyes searching the vibrant, seething water. And sooner or later to die. Some die sooner rather than later.”
“Angel is the name I called myself after the accident, when I finally decided to live, she said. Her voice was soft, controlled, emotionless. “An angel is something alive that was once dead. Like me. Alive and then dead and then alive again. Angel.”

Though I never finished the book because it was simply all too much for me, perhaps Lowell’s To the Ends of the Earth (single title re-written from The Danver’s Touch) is the quintessential Big Assumption romance.

After having been burned badly by his first wife, Travis Danvers assumes all women are money-grubbing whores. Cat Cochran’s first husband was a wealthy scumbag; when they divorced she took nothing and now supports her mother and two siblings. Although born wealthy, and, presumably, her father wasn’t a scumbag, she now assumes all wealthy men are cut of the same “rich-boy” cloth. Of the two big assumptions, his is worse – both in thought and in its results. Given the age of this book, I think it’s fair to talk about what happens, but if you’re afraid of spoilers, scroll past this box instead.

Because her two siblings are in college, Cat is forced to work like a dog to pay for their education. She works like a dog. She also believes she is sterile…oops. Travis believes she lied about her sterility to trap him, and shortly after she loses the baby in a horrendous miscarriage and/or burns his “blood money,” I gave up on the book.

But for many readers, I made a mistake and should have forged on. In her DIK Review of the book, Marianne Stillings wrote:

“True, Travis is an over-the-top ass, but he is very well characterized, he truly loves Cat, wants to be with her every second, wants her to sail away with him to the ends of the Earth, feels deep admiration and respect for her, and when he realizes what he’s done and the ramifications of his treatment of her, his self-contempt and emotionally-charged redemption are heart-wrenching. Theirs is a hard relationship to see unfold, the anguish each character feels is realistic and painful – but when these two finally hit their happily-ever-after, it’s well-earned, poignant, richly drawn, and emotionally satisfying. These two people are completely connected to each other and is probably one of the reasons the story affected me so much.”

AAR’s Sandy Coleman adds, “The sexual dynamics between the two are very well done and are probably the main reason that I’m okay with what happens later. The Big Assumption that the hero makes when the heroine (who believed she was sterile) happily announces to the hero that she’s pregnant is really ugly and it’s only redeemed by some pretty satisfying hero groveling that follows.”

Contrast Sandy’s reaction to Eden Burning, which she found “unintentionally hilarious.” Apparently this is one of Lowell’s “double Big Ass” romances; Nicole, the heroine, assumes she’s a failure as a woman, and unattractive, even though she dances at a club as Pele, the Fire Goddess. Chase, the wealthy hero, assumes all women are money-grubbing whores; in particular he’s convinced Pele is out to destroy Chase’s brother’s happy marriage and decides to seduce her as a preventative measure. Marianne liked the book no more than Sandy did: here’s an excerpt from her review:

“Chase has a brother, Dane, who is happily married. Yet, the minute Chase sees Nicole, he is certain, certain, absolutely certain, that Nicole is out to get Dane and break up his marriage. He dwells on it. He obsesses over it. Every word out of her mouth assures him he’s right. After all, Dane and Chase are rich and good-looking. A little slut like Pele could only be after one thing. So, to ‘save’ his younger brother, Chase tells Dan he can seduce Pele into bed before month’s end, but he doesn’t tell him why. Oblivious Dane says, nope, she’ll never do it.

“So, Chase makes a play for Pele and within three days’ times, has her in the sack where he literally takes five minutes out of his busy day and f***s her, leaves her unsatisfied, puts his clothes on, splits and goes to tell his brother he’s now safe from the conniving whore’s clutches. He calls her names, details how dispassionate she was, tells his brother he has just f****d the broad, and generally proves what a creep he is. Of course, Nicole accidentally overhears him and rushes to the bathroom where she is sick with humiliation.

“Seeing her ill, Chase suddenly realizes how wrong he’s been! Wrong, yes wrong! Oh so very, very wrong! How could he have been so blind! Oh my God, he shudders. What has he done? Oh, but she’s so beautiful and sweet, and anybody can see just how shy she is ….”

After Nicole’s Big Assumption-based betrayal by the Big Ass Chase, says Sandy, “she dances naked in her home to numb the pain. It’s written in those trademark Lowell One. Word. Sentences. And it’s one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever come across anywhere.”

Thank goodness I never came across that particular Lowell, although I’m not sure how I missed it since I’ve accumulated a great deal of her backlist over the years. Clearly I would not have handled Chase’s alpha heel behavior well, but then again, why I’ve read A Woman Without Lies three times and adore Too Hot to Handle surprises me when I think about it.

I’m not sure how many other authors I will accept such alpha heel behavior from besides Lowell, and maybe Linda Howard, author of Duncan’s Bride, another “all women are goldigging sluts” Big Assumption book. In Duncan’s Bride, however, the heroine handles the situation differently, eventually fighting back against the cruelty. Although I’m not a fan of modern-day mail-order bride romances, Duncan’s Bride is very nearly a DIK for me. A Woman Without Lies earned a B-.

Although I’ve read romances wherein the heroine is the one with the Big Assumption about the hero, it’s far more common to come across the reverse, which, as I mentioned earlier, usually condemns an entire sex rather than an individual, making the Big Assumption worse in my mind. But then there’s always the Projected Big Assumption, which occurs when a character assumes something about him or herself and projects that onto others. In Love Song for a Raven, for instance, the heroine assumes, even though her first husband was gay, that she’s frigid and ungainly while the hero assumes his Indian heritage is a turn-off. And in Johanna Lindsey’s Once a Princess, the hero assumes his facial scar makes him so ugly no woman would want him for himself. Of course, he also assumes that the heroine isn’t a virgin….

AAR’s Jane Jorgenson suggests a book that turns the Big Assumption on its head – Indiscreet, by Kasey Michaels. As she describes it:

“The heroine’s mother was mistress to a married man, and just about everyone she’s ever encountered (males in particular) assumes she is as sexually free as her mother. Sophie uses those assumptions to her advantage. She uses charm and her sexual power to get what she needs from life. Only the hero can see through the facade – and only when he does is Sophie able to break free from her own self-destructive patterns. I loved this one, not only as an homage to The Grand Sophy, but because the hero, Bramwell, does look past the assumptions to see the true Sophie.”

Although I often condemn the Big Misunderstanding, it, like the Big Assumption, is a romance novel staple. If a Big Mis could have been cleared up with a 60-second conversation, I’m not a fan. But it does have its place. The same goes for the Big Assumption; certain authors manage to make this difficult plot device work. When it doesn’t, I want to hurl the book at the nearest wall. But when it works, I fall for it like Hawk eventually fell for Angel.

Because it’s still up in the air as to whether Diana Palmer or Elizabeth Lowell is the Queen of the Big Assumption, Jennifer Keirans and Linda Hurst, two of AAR’s Diana-Palmer-as-guilty-pleasure readers, weigh in with their thoughts on the Big Ass.

Jennifer on the Big Ass

Does a Big Assumption make an ass out of you and me, as Felix Unger says? Well, it almost always makes an ass out of someone: the hero or heroine of the book in which the Big Assumption appears. And that’s not a good thing.

For me, a Big Assumption is an unreasonable assumption. If a chambermaid assumes an earl to be haughty, it doesn’t bother me – even if she turns out to be wrong – because the assumption is a reasonable one from the chambermaid’s point of view. Verdict: the chambermaid is not an ass. But the hero who assumes that the heroine is a selfish fortune-hunter, even though she has money of her own and has adopted thirteen starving orphans? He’s an ass, because he assumes something contrary to the evidence before his eyes, or for no apparent reason at all.

The Big Assumption usually happens at the beginning of the relationship between the hero and the heroine, and acts as a source of conflict throughout the remainder of the book. Creating conflict between characters must be a difficult thing to do, because it’s one of the places where a lot of romance novels falter. Conflict should stem believably from the characters’ personalities or situations. When the conflict is based on a Big Assumption, it generally doesn’t seem believable – it seems contrived and forced.

A few examples, off the top of my head:

    • Taming the Heiress by Susan King. On a tiny Scottish island, it is believed that a kelpie sometimes visits to claim a human lover. If this happens the village will have good luck. A man is shipwrecked and washes up; believing that he is the kelpie, our heroine makes love to him. Later, she sees him being rescued by men in a rowboat and realizes that he is a human man. She assumes that he somehow knew about the tradition of the kelpie, and that he deliberately masqueraded as the kelpie in order to get anonymous sex. Wouldn’t it be more natural to assume the truth, that he is the victim of a shipwreck? And how could this stranger possibly have known about the kelpie tradition, anyway?
  • The Princess of Park Lane by Jacqueline Navin. The heroine is an innocent fresh-faced girl in her first Season. She flirts a bit with the hero, who promptly assumes that she’s a courtesan looking for a protector. When she mentions her aunt and sisters, he thinks she’s referring to her madam and fellow prostitutes. When she protests (after he nearly deflowers her), he tells her that his mistaken assumption was entirely her fault for being so forward.

Both of these examples illustrate my problem with the Big Assumption: they make the characters look like jerks. If I’m going to read an entire book about someone, I want him or her to not be a jerk. If the characters exhibited a tiny bit of common sense, there would be no assumption, and therefore no conflict. But since the conflict is so obviously manufactured, it’s not compelling or interesting to read about.

No article about the Big Assumption can fail to mention Diana Palmer. Palmer is an author whose books I hate to love; I haven’t read very much of her huge backlist, but what I have read suggests to me that her heroes have a tendency to leap to Big Assumptions. Sometimes he assumes the virginal heroine is a slut. Sometimes he assumes the heroine is a slut when he discovers that she’s not a virgin. Sometimes he assumes that she’s a slut because she accuses someone of attempting to rape her (rather than believing that someone actually attempted to rape her). In the Palmerverse, nothing says “Romance” like a guy who assumes you’re a slut. What saves these books (if they are saved, which is a matter of opinion) is that the hero always apologizes so humbly and sweetly at the end.

Palmer is the author of a book that surely contains one of the biggest, most outrageous assumptions ever. In Heart of Ice, the heroine is Kati James, a young, virginal romance novelist. She writes spicy love scenes because she has a great imagination, and in her dreams these love scenes always star Egan Winthrop. Unfortunately, Egan assumes that Kati is a slut because of all those spicy love scenes she writes. “We both know what you are,” Egan says, “you with your loose morals and your disgusting books.” At the end of the book he says he only said all those nasty things about her because he loved her and was jealous. In the Palmerverse, “You’re a slut” means “I love you.”

There are a few rare cases in which the Big Assumption actually works. One of these is the Sam and Alyssa storyline that plays out in the books The Defiant Hero, Over The Edge, Out of Control, Into the Night, and Gone Too Far. Initially Alyssa, a woman of color, assumes that Sam, a loud-mouthed Texan, is a redneck racist creep. In The Defiant Hero, Sam calls her and asks her to meet him in a pool hall. She assumes he’s leading her into a trap, and snaps, “This is going to be really funny, right? When I come all the way down to that (expletive) part of town, and walk into some biker bar, and you’re not there. That’s going to be some joke when it’s me and five three-hundred-pound white supremacists, huh?”

It’s a Big Assumption, all right. Not until the fifth book in their story arc does Alyssa realize how wrong she is. But the assumption didn’t bother me in this story, for a number of reasons. The main one is that the assumption is far from the only conflict between Sam and Alyssa – it’s just the first of a number of catastrophic mistakes that they make in their dealings with each other. It’s also an understandable mistake: Alyssa is a black woman trying to succeed in a world dominated by white men. She has reason to be defensive. Her assumption does kind of make her an ass, but I found her to be a sympathetic ass.

Still, the successful Big Assumption, like the successful Big Misunderstanding, is a very rare thing.

Linda on the Big Ass

Diana Palmer’s ‘alpha-jerks’ are my guiltiest reading pleasure. Most of her heroes jump to erroneous conclusions and proceed to act on them without any real rhyme or reason. Most of them have had horrible mothers who left their father and then got involved with a woman who ‘did them wrong,’ thus they now assume all women are gold-diggers or sluts. Palmer’s work is rife with these heroes but the best (or possibly worst) example is Simon in Beloved. This man is presumably intelligent as he is the Attorney General of the State of Texas. But, when it comes to Tyra he first jumps to the conclusion that she is to blame for the death of his best friend – since she divorced him after a short marriage and ‘let’ him go work at a dangerous job. After it is revealed that his lifetime best friend was gay, which made him look like an idiot as he is just dumbfounded when told, he then tries to get Tyra back. But, is our hero through with jumping to conclusions? Noooooo! After he sleeps with her and finds out she is a virgin, he assumes that she has gone from his bed to another man’s that rumor has said she has been sleeping with for years.

Simon is just one among Palmer’s pantheon of alpha-jerks, the only thing that saves them is that they do grovel so nicely and actually turn out to be great husbands once captured. But, it can be annoying and make the man look like a jerk and the woman like an idiot for loving him. Often Palmer’s women can seem like masochists who can only love a man who hates them or mistreats them. Again, Palmer’s stories would not work if she didn’t write such great grovel. She also has moments where you get an insight into the man, where you see how wounded he is and how much he needs loving.

But, Palmer is not alone in conclusion jumping, even my favorite author Jayne Ann Krentz has used the Big Assumption on several occasions. Max in Grand Passion at first thinks the heroine is his boss’s mistress and a gold-digger to boot. In Lost and Found the hero and heroine actually sleep together before she discovers he thought she might be a crook. She sends him away, but since this is JAK the heroes do quickly realize their mistakes and do their best to rectify them. Because Krentz’s books are so humorous and the heroes are so quick to realize they’ve been asses, the taste left in the reader’s mouth is different than when reading a Big Ass Palmer hero.

Linda Howard’s Mr. Perfect is another book that uses both humor and the Big Assumption. The heroine assumes that her neighbor is a boorish alcoholic – he is actually an undercover cop. But, one of the funniest Big Assumptions was in Karen Robards’ To Trust A Stranger: the heroine meets the private eye hero when he is undercover in a gay bar. In drag! He takes her home and she discovers his pet is a small poodle – she immediately feels safe and jumps to the conclusion that he is gay. How she discovers he is straight was hilarious and certainly enhanced the story. BTW, the Big Gay Assumption was also used cleverly in Mary Balogh’s The Famous Heroine.

No More Wire Hangers! (Laurie Likes Books)

In the last ATBF we discussed bad first wives, but mentioned in passing the bad/mean mom (or stepmom). Both bad first wives and mean moms have a connection to the Big Ass hero; one, the other, or both create in this hero the assumption that all women are nasty. Judith McNaught’s 1987 Regency-set historical, Once and Always, combines all three premises in a classic romance; it’s my second-favorite McNaught after A Kingdom of Dreams (which features a bad dad).

In Once and Always, Jason is the illegitimate son of a nobleman who gives him to his brother and sister-in-law to raise. They take the baby to India and when the brother dies, the sister-in-law, who is a religious fanatic, whips the living daylights out of him and makes him beg for mercy. But his torment doesn’t end there. Jason’s first wife was a money-grubbing slut and after she stole their beloved son and ran off with her lover, all three died at sea. At this point his heart froze, and when he meets and falls for Victoria, he assumes she too is a whore and will want payment for sex. He gives her jewelry after they are intimate on more than one occasion and it takes a death-scare for the domineering, unkind, and occasionally cruel Jason to let go of his Big Assumption.

But mean moms don’t always create a Big Ass hero; sometimes they destroy their daughters or sons. Indeed, a book mentioned early on in this column – Diane Farr’s Fair Game – features a very mean mom, one who would sell her daughter to pay a debt. Heroines born of whores aren’t all that unusual in romance; the heroine in Kat Martin’s Innocence Undone is another. The girl is later saved by an aging marquis, whose son makes a Big Assumption that she is making a dupe of his father. And then there’s Rexanne Becnel’s The Heartbreaker. There are two mean moms in this novel – the heroine’s repressive mother drove nearly all joy out of her daughter’s life, and the heroine’s sister, whose slutty behavior results in a daughter she leaves with her sister to raise while she returns to her slutty life in London. Another two bad/mean moms exist in Katherine Sutcliffe’s Dream Fever. In her DIK Review of the book, author Adele Ashworth writes:

“Nicholas Sabre is the second son of the Earl of Chesterfield. Since a young age he’s led a life of debauchery, due in part to the loose morals of his parents – namely his mother who left her family for a life in India with her current lover…Summer O’Neile is the beautiful daughter of an Irish courtesan and an unknown father. Upon discovery that her mother killed herself after being dismissed by her current lover, Lord Pimbersham, Summer seeks revenge.”

And then there’s the mean mom from Lowell’s To the Ends of the Earth, whose spendthrift ways force her daughter to work herself ill. There’s also the mother in Catherine Archer’s Velvet Touch, who raised her daughter, born with a club foot, with no sense of self. Taught never to think about herself or her own needs, Lady Fellis is both untouchable and untouched. Lady Fellis Grayson, Sir Stephen’s heroine, is much more the tortured soul in this story. Though beautiful, intelligent and loving, she is regarded by her people as an outcast because she was born with a club foot. Raised by a terribly misguided mother, she has grown to adulthood without any sense of self. Taught never to think about herself or her own needs, she is untouchable and untouched, accepting the lot in life her mother believes she must have – subservient, faded, and cloistered.

There’s a doozy of a mean mom in Nora Roberts’ Chesapeake Bay quartet – Gloria DeLauter – who quite easily earned my vote as the biggest villain in our 2003 Reader Poll. This is a woman who abused her young son, sold him to Ray Quinn, a decent man who would protect him, then blackmailed Ray and tried to destroy his reputation. After his death she continued her blackmail on his three adopted sons (two of whom were sexually or physically abused), and after her true relationship to Ray was revealed, she blackmailed her son (beginning when he’s still a young teen), who would do anything to keep her away from his family.

While Gloria DeLauter is the quintessence of evil, Roberts created another mean mom in an earlier series of books – the Born In trilogy. Margaret Mary and Brianna Concannon’s mother Mave isn’t evil in such an outlandish fashion, but she still did quite a number on the heads of her daughters with her bitterness and anger.

Roberts isn’t known for writing mean moms; indeed, the matriarch of the MacGregor and Quinn clans are wonderful. Yet, as Sandy Coleman reminds me, she’s written some pretty nasty moms. There’s the mother in Carnal Innocence, who drove her daughter relentlessly in her career as a concert violinist, which contrasts nicely with the churlish resentment Mave Concannon felt toward her daughter Margaret Mary’s success as a glass artist in Born in Fire. There’s the mother in Homeport, whom Sandy describes as “the worst mom in the entire history of bad moms,” the repressive and unloving mother in Daring to Dream, and the good-intentions/bad results moms from True Betrayals and Genuine Lies. (Sandy also listed some of Roberts’ bad dads, but I think it’s best to save all bad dads for another time.)

Sometimes it’s the grandmother who serves as the mean mom; in both Rexanne Becnel’s The Maiden Bride and Stella Cameron’s Bride, the evil grandma nearly destroys her grandchild’s happiness out of fear in the former and greed in the latter. And, as AAR’s Lynn Spencer shares, in LaVyrle Spencer’s Morning Glory, the heroine was raised by her grandmother – another religious fanatic – after being born out of wedlock. Lynn writes: “The grandmother raises Ellie in a home where Ellie’s mother is basically kept prisoner (mom dies young, I think). Ellie is raised as a ‘child of shame’ and suffers all kinds of emotional abuse. Needless to say, she has a lot of baggage when she meets the hero.”

I think bad dads, assorted other nasty relatives, and the “orphan” hero/heroine are all characters we need to address in a future ATBF column. But not the January 15th issue. No, that column will be devoted to Robin’s annual look at buried treasures and will kick off the voting in our yearly reader poll.

Time to Post to the Message Board

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

So, what was your reading year like? Since at least three upcoming columns will focus on buried treasure romances and favorite romances published in 2003, let’s talk about the year in general as far as 2003-published romance is concerned, but specific about non-romances and romances published in earlier years:

  • How many books did you read in 2003?
  • What percentage of the books you read were published in 2003?
  • What percentage of the books you read were romances? Other books?
  • Did you set a goal and meet it?
  • Did you exceed it or fall below it?
  • Do you keep track of what you read? If so, did you recently start or have you been doing so for some time? If not, do you plan to in the future?
  • What were your favorite non-romances and favorite pre-2003 romances?
  • Did you leave any authors behind in 2003?

Let’s talk about the Big Assumption:

  • How major of a plot device is this in romance novels as far as you’re concerned?
  • Do you find the Big Ass often used in conjunction with the Big Misunderstanding and/or even the Big Secret?
  • Of the three “Bigs,” which do you most or least enjoy, and why?
  • Whom do you believe is the Queen of the Big Ass?
  • Name some Big Assumption romances that you enjoyed, some you didn’t, and why they worked or did not work.
  • Does comedy play a role in enjoyment of the Big Ass?
  • Does the length of time the Big Ass extends throughout the novel temper your enjoyment?
  • Which Big Ass heroes and/or heroines did you come to love by the end of their story? Which did you not?
  • What percentage of the books you read were published in 2004?

No More Wire Hangers!

  • What does it portend for a hero or heroine to have suffered/continue to suffer at the hands of a bad or mean mom?
  • What types of behavior do you associate with a bad or mean mom?
  • What are some favorite romances featuring an existing bad or mean mom or the legacy of a bad/mean mom? Least favorites?
  • Do you notice certain authors write this type of mother more often than others?
  • Who is the meanest or baddest mother you’ve ever read or read about in a romance? Did you love, like, dislike, or hate the book?
  • Did you set a goal and meet it? Did you exceed it or fall below it?

 TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books, Jennifer Keirans,
Linda Hurst, & Sandy Coleman

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