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At the Back Fence Issue #188

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

October 1 , 2004

Welcome to At the Back Fence. This time I continue our multi-column segment on beloved romance characters with my discussion on secondary romances (last time we talked about couples; next time we’ll do villains you love to hate). Next Robin peers into A Box of Books, then Anne Browses the Shelves.

The “look” of this column is slightly different (page width, font size and color) than in the past because I’m doing my best to help prepare for the new site design and hope that by doing it in increments the overall change won’t be such a shock.

Secondary Relationships to Love (by Laurie Likes Books)

It’s been a terrific experience the last seven or eight weeks or remembering favorite heroes, heroines, and couples. With each set of memories came ideas for further memory exploration. What about favorite secondary characters? This is such a broad category that it deserves breaking down. Let’s see, there are secondary friendships and family relationships, villains you love to hate, hilarious side-kicks and/or servants, and sly pets. But topping off the list of secondaries is secondary romances.

Once I settled in on writing about secondary romances, a new idea jumped into my head: were there any secondary romances I wish had been explored in books of their own? For instance, for years and years I’ve wished that Julia Quinn had written a prequel to Splendid and Dancing at Midnight so that I could experience the courtship of Lady Arabella Blydon’s parents. Her parents are part of a couple of wonderful scenes involving their niece in Splendid that not only reveal their humor, but hint at a rather scandalously delightful courtship. How I wish I could read it!

Since I can’t command that an author write a book simply for me, all I can do is focus on books that actually feature terrific secondary relationships. Oh, I could probably do an entire column alone on non-romantic secondary relationships, what with all the friends and families featured in so many of my favorite romances, but instead, this time will focus solely on secondary romances.

Off-hand I’d say that Anne Stuart may be the queen of the secondary romance. In both of my Anne Stuart DIK’s – A Rose at Midnight and To Love a Dark Lord – I not only fell in love with the hero and heroine, I came away adoring the secondary lovers. But it’s not simply these two books that feature a strong secondary romance – Lord of Danger, which I liked, and her less successful Prince of Swords, also featured fairly well-developed secondary romances, as does her newest release, Hidden Honor. There are likely others, but it’s about these I know.

In A Rose at Midnight, the plump Lady Ellen has no idea how desirable she is to her brother’s friend Tony. It takes considerable effort on his part – including accompanying her throughout the countryside as she looks for Ghislaine and Nicholas (the leads) and ruining her on purpose out of desperation – so that she’ll “get” how he really sees her. There’s a sharp contrast between this secondary romance and the primary romance. While the love between Ghislaine and Nicholas is difficult, dark, and very dangerous, Ellen and Tony’s coming together is fun and funny. He absolutely hates that she believes his feelings for her are avuncular when he couldn’t feel less like an uncle. It’s also great fantasy fulfillment; how many women wouldn’t love a man going to such lengths to prove how serious he is about his attraction and love for her?

Stuart does contrast very well, and this ability is showcased in To Love a Dark Lord. The primary romance in this book features a dark lord indeed, and the woman who brings light into his life. The secondary romance reverses the situation, and in more ways than one. Lady Barbara is dark and the younger Nathanial brings light into her life, a role reversal from the norm in most romances wherein younger women bring an older hero out of the dark. But there’s even another contrast here, for Nathanial is initially seen as something of a prig and Barbara is supposedly a woman with vast appetites. Even though Barbara’s real self is at dramatic odds with the persona she represents to the world, it is Nathanial’s true and loving nature that makes this secondary romance so touching.

A sort of flip side to the secondary relationship in To Love a Dark Lord occurs in Linda Madl’s A Whisper of Violets. Davis, brother of the book’s heroine, is the proverbial stuffed-shirt, and a judgmental one at that who believes the delectable Susannah is beneath him. But he’s incredibly attracted to her, and it’s a wicked irony that his redemption from judgmental title-hunter to a much better – and more honorable – man occurs after giving over to his baser instincts and embracing his lustful feelings for this kind and loving woman.

I don’t know that I can actual create a list of favorite secondary romances, but I can share several more that stand out in my mind. There’s a very fun one in Susan Elizabeth PhillipsLady be Good. The hero’s sister is a very flighty, oft-married flake of a woman whose only interests seem to be shopping and, at the moment, raising emus. Her father “arranges” for her to marry Dexter, a wealthy computer geek who, as everybody knows from watching Revenge of the Nerds (in the words of the immortal Lewis, “Jocks only think about sports, nerds only think about sex”), make the best lovers. Dexter forces Torie out of her comfort zone and won’t let her rely on her feminine wiles. He even refuses to sleep with her, because, as he asks her, “why should you buy the steer if you can get the beef for free?” Then he kisses her within an inch of her life – all the while copping a feel – and later on, in a scene I never thought I’d ever enjoy in a romance novel, he spanks her for being a brat. After which follows a luscious love scene which should prove for all time that the process is as important as the product.

Ruth Langan wrote a series of Renaissance romances set in England and Scotland involving a trio of sisters who each become laird of their clan. In Highland Heather, the second of the series, we are introduced to the fiercely proud Lord Richard Gray, who is wheel-chair bound. In the course of the book he falls in love with a lovely young Frenchwoman named Adrianna d’Arbeville and cannot believe she could possibly return his affections when, of course she does. I’ve enjoyed many of Ruth Langan’s romances but it’s this secondary romance that puts it at the top of my list of Langan reads.

Another memorable secondary romance involving a “handicapped” character is Joan Johnston’s Captive, in which the Duke of Braddock seeks revenge on the Earl of Denbeigh because the Earl (the book’s hero) killed his brother in a duel prior to the start of the book. What better revenge than to dishonor the Earl’s “crippled” spinster sister? The reasons behind the duel are complicated, and not fully revealed to one and all until a climactic scene late in the book involving all four main participants, but the Duke seems intent upon his revenge even as it appears to the reader – and to Olivia – that he’s actually developed feelings for her. There is a small moment in this scene when Olivia asks the duke a simple question that forces him to accept and admit his true feelings for her, and it’s wonderful to read. That it also kicks the hero in the ass into forcing him to accept his feelings for the heroine is simply a bonus.

A near-perfect romance novel with a wonderful secondary romance is Kat Martin’s Innocence Undone. The primary romance is magnificent and the secondary romance of two damaged souls is only slightly less magnificent. Gwen is a young woman chafing under her lustful step-father’s faux propriety. She catches the interest of Adam St. Cere, a brooding man with a horrendous reputation. Because she is determined to live life on her own terms she is in need of rescue more than once, and though his reputation says otherwise, St. Cere behaves honorably until he can no longer hide his desires.

Gwen’s liveliness and strength bring out the best in St. Cere…until they bring out the worst and he threatens to go to Gwen’s father and tell of her escapades unless she agrees to give in to her passion for him. It’s been almost a decade since this book’s release, but to give away what happens would be unforgivable on my end, so I’ll only say this: neither character gives up their honor or changes what they want or deserve in life. It’s a powerful sub-plot and had the reader been able to see these two strong, hurting people come together intimately the book would have earned DIK status rather than a B+.

Each of the books I’ve mentioned so far have been books I thoroughly enjoyed. Captive and A Whisper of Violets earned B’s from me, Kat Martin’s and Ruth Langan’s books each earned B+’s, and the two Anne Stuart’s I detailed received DIK status, as did SEP’s book. There’s one last book to mention, even though it isn’t a book I actually recommend for the primary romance – Mary Balogh’s The Incurable Matchmaker. And it’s not even such a terrific secondary romance, for the most part, but the climax of it is so fun that I have to share it with you. And as the book is well over a dozen years old, and the scene involves not the primaries but the secondaries, I’m going to detail it now.

Angela Wickenham has loved Lord Crensford since she was young, but he’s never seen her as anything other than a pesky, silly, and dramatic little thing. Well, she’s all grown up now, and still loves him even though all he shows her is annoyance, particularly when other men around notice her feminine charms. His mother, the incurable matchmaker of the book’s title, sends him out on a rainstorm to look for her after she disappears, and he finds her on the battlements of a crumbling castle – and if you haven’t been on stone battlements in the rain, let me tell you, they’re very slippery.

When he finds her he’s absolutely furious, so furious that he grabs her and kisses her passionately. The storm is so fierce that they must huddle together and somehow, this annoying young woman ends up in Ernest’s lap. He tells her now they’ll now be forced to marry, but she says no because she believes he’s in love with his widowed sister-in-law (the book’s heroine). He responds, in a scornful manner, naturally, “Of course I don’t love her…only like a sister. Not as I love you.”

This declaration annoys him all the more because then he says, “Well there! Now what have you made me say? You would probably exasperate me every day of my life. And I would doubtless be jealous of every man who set eyes on you. And you would probably always be telling me that I am angry with you when I am not angry at all but only afraid of losing you…And, and will you marry me?”

Angela answers that she will always think of him as her “knight in splendid armor.” that he will always be “her splendid knight.” After he tells her that’s the silliest thing he’s ever heard she tells him she will marry him and that she loves him. And he answers: “And so you should. I don’t marry females who don’t love me.”

Well, these are my favorite secondary romances. Writing a great secondary romance can enrich an already wonderful book, but it can create trouble if the secondary characters and/or their relationship is more powerful, interesting, better-written, or more romantic than the primary romance. We’ve all read, haven’t we, books featuring secondary couples and come away wishing they’d been the leads instead of the couple the author chose to focus upon?

So I’m interested in learning who your favorite secondary lovers are, and why you love them. Are there certain authors who give two romances well for the price of one? Do you feel short-changed when you read a romance with a strong secondary because either it took away time from the primary or because you wish they’d gotten their own full story? And which, if any, romances featured secondary characters who interested you more than the primary couple? But before we leave this topic, I’d like to share with you a wonderful snippet Robin sent me when she read my description of The Incurable Matchmaker. This comes from Dickens’ David Copperfield and the romance that begins between David’s nurse Peggotty and Barkis, the man who drives the local wagon.

Barkis never exchanges more than a word or two with Peggotty before falling in love with her – and the reader is surprised at the revelation. Barkis sees Peggotty when she comes out of the house, kisses Davy goodbye, and gives him a basket of food to take on his journey. She is described as a sweet, motherly sort of woman, probably in middle age and somewhat homely. Like all children, David sees Peggotty with eyes of love and completely in terms of his own need, which is for mothering – as his own mother is little more than a child. The romance comes about when Barkis is taking David the coach which will take him to school, and it is one of the sweetest in all of Dickens:

As this was a great deal for the carrier (whose name was Mr. Barkis) to say – he being, as I observed in a former chapter, of a phlegmatic temperament, and not at all conversational – I offered him a cake as a mark of attention, which he ate at one gulp, exactly like an elephant, and which made no more impression on his big face than it would have done on an elephant’s.

‘Did SHE make ’em, now?’ said Mr. Barkis, always leaning forward, in his slouching way, on the footboard of the cart with an arm on each knee.

‘Peggotty, do you mean, sir?’

‘Ah!’ said Mr. Barkis. ‘Her.’

‘Yes. She makes all our pastry, and does all our cooking.’

‘Do she though?’ said Mr. Barkis.
He made up his mouth as if to whistle, but he didn’t whistle. He sat looking at the horse’s ears, as if he saw something new there; and sat so, for a considerable time. By and by, he said:

‘No sweethearts, I b’lieve?’

‘Sweetmeats did you say, Mr. Barkis?’ For I thought he wanted something else to eat, and had pointedly alluded to that description of refreshment.

‘Hearts,’ said Mr. Barkis. ‘Sweet hearts; no person walks with her!’

‘With Peggotty?’

‘Ah!’ he said. ‘Her.’

‘Oh, no. She never had a sweetheart.’

‘Didn’t she, though!’ said Mr. Barkis.

Again he made up his mouth to whistle, and again he didn’t whistle, but sat looking at the horse’s ears.

‘So she makes,’ said Mr. Barkis, after a long interval of reflection, ‘all the apple parsties, and doos all the cooking, do she?’

I replied that such was the fact.

‘Well. I’ll tell you what,’ said Mr. Barkis. ‘P’raps you might be writin’ to her?’

‘I shall certainly write to her,’ I rejoined.

‘Ah!’ he said, slowly turning his eyes towards me. ‘Well! If you was writin’ to her, p’raps you’d recollect to say that Barkis was willin’; would you?’

‘That Barkis is willing,’ I repeated, innocently. ‘Is that all the message?’

‘Ye-es,’ he said, considering. ‘Ye-es. Barkis is willin’.’

‘But you will be at Blunderstone again tomorrow, Mr. Barkis,’ I said, faltering a little at the idea of my being far away from it then, and could give your own message so much better.’

As he repudiated this suggestion, however, with a jerk of his head, and once more confirmed his previous request by saying, with profound gravity, ‘Barkis is willin’. That’s the message,’ I readily undertook its transmission. While I was waiting for the coach in the hotel at Yarmouth that very afternoon, I procured a sheet of paper and an inkstand, and wrote a note to Peggotty, which ran thus: ‘My dear Peggotty. I have come here safe. Barkis is willing. My love to mama. Yours affectionately. P.S. He says he particularly wants you to know – BARKIS IS WILLING.’

A Box of Books (By Robin Uncapher)

What would you do if someone gave you a box of shiny new 2003 and 2004 romance novels for free? Would you cull your favorite authors and give away the rest? Try some new writers? Try reading them all to test the odds?

Not long ago I went to an exhibition of 19th century art at the National Gallery. A painting I saw, John Frederick Peto’s “Take Your Choice,” inspired me to write about coming home from this year’s RWA national conference with a box of books.

A week after I returned to Bethesda from the Romance Writers of America Convention in Dallas the UPS man arrived at my door with an anxiously awaited package, my books! Yes, by the time my visit to the RWA Convention had ended I had accumulated thirty brand new romance novels, only three of which I had purchased at the RWA literacy book-signing. Tearing open the box I was greeted by many shiny covers and as I dug them all out of the box I realized many were books I’d never have thought to buy, or even check out of the library.

Where did the books come from? As a member of RWA, I received a welcome bag which included about six free books. Add to that books given away at numerous luncheons and book signings and you have my box. There were so many free books to be had that, by the end of the Conference I avoided adding any to my stash. Books covered my bed, filled my RWA welcome bag and peaked out of my luggage.

These books were a great perk for attending the conference. Attending RWA’s national conference is a reasonably expensive outing and the value of the books acquired did not outweigh the outlay of cash for registration and travel costs. But they were a pleasure, no question about it.

After the initial thrill of acquisition however, another feeling settled over me. Did I have a responsibility to read all of these books? And if I did, did I really want to? Free books might look great but a box of the wrong free books isn’t necessarily a fun thing to have. I remember years ago a fledgling author wrote a post on the Internet advising other authors how to submit books to reviewers. Underlying her advice was the assumption that writers had to watch out for large numbers of readers posing as reviewers in order to get free novels. All of us on the AAR staff had a good laugh at that. With libraries full of excellent free books and UBSs crowded with low priced ones reading is not an expensive habit. While readers might line up for free Linda Howard or Jennifer Crusie offerings, reading a box full of unknown offerings is another thing entirely.

Considering my box of books reminded me of how spoiled I am now when it comes to reading material. Good things to read are now everywhere and that is a big change from the days of my childhood when the library limited loans to two books. Nowadays I’m picky about what I read. I can afford to be.

But RWA had me all fired up to read romance. Though I might flatter myself into thinking I know something about the genre, going to a convention with so many romance authors was, as always, a humbling experience. Everywhere there were authors whose books I had not read. Everywhere there were people referring to romance novels I had missed. Impossible though this would be, it made me want to read everything.

So what was in the box? Here’s a list. I should tell you that, though they were available, I did pass up all books that I absolutely knew I would not read.



  • The Cinderella Rules by Donna Kaufmann
  • The Seductive Imposter by Janet Chapman
  • The Last Mermaid by Shana Abe
  • And the Bride Wore Plaid by Karen Hawkins
  • In Your Arms Again by Kathryn Smith
  • Small Wonders by Marilyn Pappano
  • The Heart of the Hunter by Tina St. John
  • Married to the Viscount by Sabrina Jeffries
  • The Heartbreaker by Carly Phillips
  • Song of the Road by Dorothy Garlock
  • Night Fires by Karen Harbaugh

  • Seen by Moonlight by Kathleen Eschenburg
  • One Wicked Night by Sari Robins
  • Love Uncovered by Hailey North
  • Going Buck Wild by Nina Fox
  • In My Heart by Melody Thomas
  • Unsettling by Linda Sandoval
  • What a Girl Wants by Reon Laudatt
  • If You Dare by Adrienne Byrd
  • The English Doctor’s Baby by Sarah Morgan
  • Back Roads by Susan Crandall
  • Sarah by Marek Halter
  • Guenevere, Queen of the Summer Country by Rosalind Miles
  • Leave it to Cleavage by Wendy Wax
  • Code Name: Nanny by Christina Skye
  • The Bird’s Kimino by Susan Massey
  • The Killing Hour by Lisa Gardner

Looking over this haul, after the UPS man had delivered it, had me asking the question. If you take thirty random romance novels, how many of them will be worth reading?

I started out with the books by my favorite authors. It had been a while since I had read Connie Brockway and My Seduction turned out to be a fun choice. It’s a Scottish romance much of which takes place on the road. I finished it feeling energized and happily recorded a B in my reading log.

Next came Dorothy Garlock’s Song of the Road. This is a beautiful trade edition with a lovely Depression Era painting on the cover. This cover drew me and Garlock is an author I’d been meaning to read for a while. This may be shallow but, I especially like it when free books are beautiful to look at. The book starts out well telling the tale of a pregnant widow who returns home to her family’s broken down motel on Route 66 only to discover that she must make a go of the business if she and the baby are going to survive. What is terrific about this book is the living-on-the-edge feeling that the Depression conveys. Large numbers people were literally starving in 1930s America. Small amounts of money, a nickel, a dime, could mean the difference between life and death. Song of the Road worked well until about halfway through when the heroine, Mary Lee begins to solve her business problems. From that point forward the book levels off and trails downward, suffering from kitchen-sink plotting and lack of romantic tension. I gave it a C+.

Leave it to Cleavage by Wendy Wax begins like this: “Miranda Smith was looking for a stamp when she discovered just how good her husband looked in ladies’ lingerie.” Oh—kay. Well I thought it was funny, hilarious in fact. The rest of the book is more in the okay range. It’s funnier than it is touching, not very believable but also not boring. I was entertained enough to give it a B-.

Kathleen Eschenburg’s Seen by Moonlight took me by surprise and was worth plowing through the whole box to find. It’s a Civil War novel with Confederate hero and heroine who are slave holders. Eschenburg manages to make them sympathetic but also portrays two secondary characters who are both slaves on the plantation, as intelligent and resourceful people. The love story between the hero and heroine is one of my favorite kinds, unrequited love in an arranged marriage. Annabelle, the heroine is particularly well drawn. My grade: B+

Smooth Talkin Stranger by Lorraine Heath reminded reminded me of a long category romance, the kind I like and the kind that are hard to find. There’s a one night stand, a hero who can’t commit and a widow still in love with her beloved first husband. There was absolutely nothing new in this story, which proves, that in the hands of a good writer, unique plots are not necessary — just good characters and good chemistry. My grade for this book was B+.

The Bride’s Kimono by Sujata Massey. This book was completely unexpected and my biggest find in the box. I had never heard of Sujata Massey or her series of mysteries set in Japan and the United States. I picked up The Bride’s Kimono at the RWA goody table. I almost left it there. The book was clearly a mystery and not a romance. I wondered if its inclusion was one more attempt to sell romance readers a non-romance with the idea that they don’t really know what they like, or that they will read virtually any book with a romance stuck somewhere in it.

But the first line of The Bride’s Kimono got me hooked, “For most people a telephone ringing in the night is a bad omen.” The next paragraph lets you know that the heroine is referring to a life of intercontinental phone calls between Japan and the U.S. and that the story is going to be about a woman with one foot in two cultures, Japan and American. What a great idea for a series.

The heroine, Rei, and sleuth, is a half-American, half-Japanese antiques dealer who lives in Tokyo. The Bride’s Kimono takes place in Washington, DC when Rei comes to deliver kimono to the Asian American Museum here. The book is not a romance. It’s a mystery. But there is a love triangle and a long running romance that is continued from earlier books and will undoubtably continue in later ones. Every detail of Washington life is correct and her explanations of the cultural differences between Americans and Japanese are fascinating. I simply could not put this book down and soon ran out to buy more Rei Shimura mysteries. My grade: A

I started Donna Kauffman’s The Cinderella Rules with high hopes. Not only is Donna Kauffman a favorite of many AAR reviewers, the handsome trade paperback had a Chick Lit feel that made me think it would be a lot of fun. There was a positive review up at AAR so I was pretty sure the book would be a hit with me. Unfortunately that was not the case. The book is set in Washington, DC – but it’s a Washington, DC with which I am completely unfamiliar. The heroine is supposedly a salt-of-the-earth type who spends her days on a ranch raising horses. Her sister talks her into coming to Washington to play hostess for her father, who is some kind of Washington tycoon. (Washington tycoon? What was he, an arms dealer?) Despite her salt of the earth character the heroine tongue-kisses the hero by the end of their first meeting. She spends much of her time looking down on shallow Washington types. This is a woman who seems astonishingly out of touch with the work that is done in our nation’s capital and the people who live there and, as a result, the book is deadly dull. I groaned through the book wishing to sentence her to watching a season of The West Wing. My grade: D

I should have paid more heed to a comment in our review of The Seductive Imposter by Janet Chapman. In her very positive review Sandy Coleman mentions that everything in the book is “over the top.” Yup, she had it right. Unfortunately I would define “over the top” in this instance as cartoonish, with a TSTL heroine who drove me straight up the wall. There wasn’t anything in this book that I believed — not the inheritance of stolen goods, not the feisty heroine who knees the hero in the groin after breaking into his house, not the heroine pretending she is not the person the hero caught breaking into the house, not a bit of it. My grade: D

So far I’ve read eight out of my thirty books with pretty good results – one A, four B’s, two Ds and one C. This is pretty good results though it is probably somewhat skewed by the inclusion of Connie Brockway in the mix. Connie Brockway is an auto-buy for me with a large percentage of her books being keepers.

Looking at the box of books remaining I ask myself how one decides to read a book knowing little about it. Some of these books, such as Guenevere, Queen of the Summer Country, and Sarah, have truly fabulous covers. Neither one of those two looks like a romance, which makes me suspicious. Though I do read straight historicals, and count The Bronze Horseman, a historical among my favorite romances, I have not had good luck with straight historicals sent to AAR by non-romance authors. Too often the romance in the book is sad and follows the literary fiction rule against happy endings.

To see if this feeling was at all close to the truth I read through the first chapter of Sarah, a fictionalized telling of the biblical Sarah, wife of Abraham. As the book opens Sarah is twelve and is experiencing her first menstrual period. This is traumatic because Sarah knows it means that she will soon be given away in an arranged marriage. The prose style of this first chapter seems to have been inspired by 16th century translations (think King James) of ancient texts. Did the author think this made the story sound more authentic? More literary? Maybe to some folks. I found it pretentious. If you are going to translate something, why not translate it into modern English? Instead characters in Sarah speak in a kind tortured Bible-speak. For example, here is Sarah worrying about how her news of a period will be greeted:

“What if Nisabab and Lillu discovered her and roused the whole household, crying out across the men’s courtyard, “Sarai is bleeding. Sarai has the bridal blood!”

Nope. Sorry. Back in the box it goes.

A few books suffer from unfortunate titles and uninspiring descriptions. Maybe The English Doctor’s Baby by Sarah Morgan is a work of art but neither the title nor the photo cover of a pediatrician with a baby, make me want to pick it up first. The first few pages do not inspire. A young woman, Jenny, talks to a little baby as she drives. She is getting ready to deliver this baby to someone called, “Alex Westerling,” (presumably the hero) and abandon it. As she drives she asks herself questions like, “Is this the right thing?” and “Was Alex Westerling the right father for an innocent baby?” Though it may seem unfair to rule a book out on the basis of a few pages read, what kind of an idiot gives a baby to someone without knowing the answer to that question? Probably not my kind of heroine.

Susan Crandall won a RITA for Back Roads; it’s got a pretty cover, but close inspection reveals that the heroine is the sheriff of her “sleepy Indiana” home town. If You Dare by Adrianne Byrd has a great cover but the description reveals that the hero is a thief. Since I avoid thief plots I’m not too sure — though our DIK review gives me pause and I will probably give it a try.

In spite of this, in the coming months, I plan to read all of these books so I can answer the question I posed for myself. In any given box of thirty romance novels how many are worth reading?

So I’m wondering. What is your advice to me on these books? Have you read any of them? All of them? If someone gave you a box of romance novels how many of them would you read? How many do you think you would like?

Browsing the Shelves (By Anne Marble)

Romance readers love books. We’re drawn to bookstores like bees to flowers. Some of us can’t resist romping through the store and checking out what’s on the shelves. Others approach bookstores like Navy SEALs planning an attack, only they use lists instead of maps and schematics.

Recently, I wondered about browsing habits. I know that I often go into bookstores looking for specific authors, but sometimes, I go in there just to look. Of course, I often go in there looking for one book by a specific author and walk out carrying five books by new authors, leaving the book I came for on the shelf because once I saw it, that book turned out to be different than what I had expected.

Am I alone? Do other readers browse a lot, go in with lists, or go in with a specific book in mind? Do they start out with lists? Do they look for specific authors after reading reviews? Do they look in a specific section, hoping to sniff out new blood? Of course, as it turns out, there are almost as many browsing styles as there are bookshelves.

Defending Browsing

Author Karen Templeton defends browsing and thinks that anyone who doesn’t think browsing is important doesn’t know diddly. After all, if it weren’t for browsing, how would readers first pick up those authors they would later start looking for? How would new writers get read? Very few readers see reviews. While some readers discover new authors by going to bookstores where the employees hand sell new authors, most new authors are discovered because of browsing. Karen also points out that things like special displays and cover art exist because browsing is so important.

Heck, if covers weren’t important, AAR wouldn’t have an entire section dedicated to covers – from praise to complaints. (Okay, mostly complaints.) If covers weren’t important, e-book publishers wouldn’t bother hiring cover artists – they would just put up a plain cover with the author name and title. And I know I’ve bought books I might otherwise have missed because of special displays or because of cover art that hinted at “something different.”

Covers are a vital part of browsing. Romance readers like to complain about covers and say that they don’t let them influence them. Yet if you browse, you’ve probably been lured by a great cover. Displays are important, too. Product placement is probably almost as important as covers. So where does that leave browsers? If you don’t see the book, you’re less likely to buy it. Also, if shelf space weren’t important, why is there so much controversy about it? When Borders announced that it would adopt a category management that would let some publishers manage the shelf space in the Borders bookstores, there was a great outcry. Small publishers were afraid that their books would get short shrift. If shelf space weren’t so important, why such controversy?

MMcA understands the importance of bookstore placement. Even if she’s read a great review of the book, she has to see it in the bookstore in order to remember that review. She asks, “How often do you see a customer striding in, confidently lifting a book from the shelves, paying for it and leaving the shop? Everyone browses in bookshops. 90% of my bookshop purchases are unplanned.” MMcA leaves most of the planned purchases to on-line vendors – for one thing, because it’s cheaper that way.

To many readers, however, browsing is about more than product placement. Diana, for instance, finds browsing “an (almost) religious experience.” She loves “touching and feeling and smelling the books and just soaking up the atmosphere.” Sydney also approaches browsing in an almost mystical way. “I just like looking and seeing what ‘speaks’ to me. Whether it be the cover or a catchy title or stumbling over a new one by an old author, I definitely don’t have a list. I like to discover…”

How I approach browsing depends on a lot of factors – my mood, what I’m looking for, how long it’s been since I last browsed, the weather… Sometimes, like Diana and Sydney, I get into the “zen of browsing.” At other times, I’m a little more organized. Especially if I have a new obsession, such as looking for Sherlock Holmes pastiches or romances about faery. Most of the time, however, I combine organized and disorganized styles of shopping. (“Okay, let’s see if they have that romantic suspense book I wanted, and while I’m at it, do they have any new fantasy books? Wait, what about Norse mythology? Oh, I’m right near the anthology section now…”)

Angela likes to browse, although her approach is more organized. Even if she has a specific book in mind, she always checks the romance sections to look for new books or, for that matter, anything else she might want to read. She doesn’t go into the store with certain authors on her mind because she’s already keeping up with the new single title releases, but she does pick up books by new authors, based on the covers. After that, she reads reviews on-line and buys the books based on either the reviews or her own instincts.

The Non-Browsers

Yes, there are some readers who admit that they don’t go into bookstores to browse. Some readers go into the bookstore looking only for a specific author, and they don’t browse.

Susan admits that while she can spend hours in a bookstore, she rarely buys books by new authors. Like so many others, she has a tight book budget. To save money, Susan tries new authors out through the library first. However, she admits to being a picky shopper even when the budget isn’t so tight. At the same time, even this mythical non-browser sees browsing as important: “That’s when I’ll walk by the romances and think, ‘Wasn’t that the debut book that got an A- on AAR?’ … So browsing is a useful way to remind myself of things I sorta intend to try.”

Susan sometimes writes down the titles of books she might like so she can check them out at the library later – which means that author might become another auto-buy author for her. For all that, she admits that she found two of her favorite SF/fantasy authors by browsing and picking up their books without any previous recommendations.

Like so many readers who have been burned before, Karen is what I call a “reformed browser.” When she first started reading romance, she browsed a lot. But she doesn’t browse much anymore, for a number of reasons. One is that she thinks back blurbs often mislead or mis-state. Then too, bookstores carry so many copies of big sellers and relatively few for new authors, so finding those new authors can be tough, particularly in a “niche” like Regencies. Even worse, many books that seemed interesting when she picked them up turned out to be duds. Because she has enough trouble affording the books she wants to buy, she tends to stick to lists or recommendations and usually buys online because it’s a less frustrating experience than going into a bookstore and not finding what she wants in stock. She admits, “I sometimes regret that I might miss a gem – especially since it’s hard to find honest reports about series books and Regencies – but the gems usually turn up in online discussions sooner or later.”

I think I’ve been a reformed browser now and then. However, in my case, the condition usually lasts about a week…so many books, so little time. I find the browsing experience too addictive. I’ll probably never become a reformed browser like Karen. But maybe someday, I’ll become like Katherine. She admits to being a compulsive browser, but she has tempered that with caution. Katherine uses reviews from sources such as AAR to keep her from being lured into buying books based on marketing hype – just as sailors used to wear earplugs to avoid the sirens’ song. The reviews are her weapon against marketing hype:“I can get reeled in by a pretty cover and an interesting blurb, and if the prose seems OK, then it’s hard to resist. In that kind of situation, it’s nice to be able to step away from the book with the knowledge that the heroine is TSTL, that the hero thinks spanking is acceptable and that the author is too fond of using the Big Misunderstanding to spin the plot out to the correct word length – those things that you just can’t find out in the shop.”


Just as some people turn browsing into an art form, others have turned it into a science. Some merely check one or two reviews. Others read reviews from multiple sources, check what readers are saying on message boards and mailing lists, keep track of what the readers who most match their styles like, and so forth. They go beyond mere browsing and look into books before making a decision to look for them. And of course, most of them use lists.

Laura admits to being the one with the list. She uses her list to remember what she wants to buy and to keep her TBR pile from getting too big. Laura only looks for books by new authors after reading reviews and reader comments, particularly from AAR. She has never gone into a bookstore and bought a book by a new author without reading reviews first. Like Laura, Tania also has a big TBR pile, so she has to be careful. One way to control her purchases is to keep a list. “I go in with a specific list at least 90% of the time. I buy books faster than I read them and have a TBR of at least 400, so I try to limit my new purchases and stick to my list.”

Like me, quite a few of readers admit to making lists, then losing those lists or leave them in the car or in another purse. I would list the number of times I’ve forgotten my lists, but, well, I’ve forgotten them.

Yes, I confess, I am a list-maker. One reason I’m so grateful for having a Palm is that I’m able to keep lists on my Palm, and as I carry it everywhere, I always have my lists on hand. Of course, that doesn’t help me if I forget to enter the books I want on my Palm… It’s so frustrating to be standing in a bookstore, in the mood for a romance with a “betrayal” plot, knowing that I forgot to copy that a great list of “betrayal” books from the Reader to Reader Message Board to my Palm.

Like me, senetra often leaves her list in the car, but unlike me, she has a better memory. She actually remembers what she wrote down. She makes lists but tends to leave them in the car, forcing her to rely on memory. Ellen also works from a list, often using recommendations and reviews from AAR. Yet even when she’s using her list, she sometimes picks up unknown authors along with the ones on her list.

See? See? You can come in with a list and still be a browser, coming out with books that weren’t on your list. I do that all the time. After all, like other readers, I so often find that the books on my list simply aren’t on the shelves. But while I’m in the store, I … might … as …. well … check … the … Whoops, there I go again.

Looking for New Blood

Some readers can’t help but browse. Most often, they browse because rather than looking for their favorite authors, they are hunting for new blood. Just as there are some readers who don’t buy a new book unless they’ve just about checked its “references,” others go into the bookstores specifically to find books by new authors.

Sarah may be the poster child for those who hunt for new blood in the bookstores. She says, “I very rarely go into a store with preconceived ideas. I don’t keep track of who is coming out with what. I don’t “auto-buy” and am always looking for new blood.”

Then again, maybe I’m the poster child for those who hunt for new blood in the bookstores. Only I don’t just hunt for new blood, I go after it with a hypodermic syringe. I also hunt for authors I’ve read and meant to get back to; authors I’ve been meaning to read; new genres; new sub-genres; new nonfiction; etc. Sometimes I browse just because… well, just because it feels great to be able to go into a bookstore and look at a lot of books and maybe, or maybe not, buy something. When I was recovering from surgery recently, I couldn’t wait to go back into the shopping centers and malls for the first time. That first trip to the Waldenbooks was one of the most therapeutic ever, even though I bought few, if any, books. (After all that time without a trip to a bookstore – more than a week! – I couldn’t make up my mind.)

Cindy varies her shopping style depending on the circumstances. If her husband is with her, she uses her list (only to learn that most of the books she wants are not on the shelves) and scans the shelves quickly. But when her husband is not with her, she can spend hours browsing. When left to her own devices, Cindy can spend hours at the book store.

Like Cindy, I love having the time for a lengthy trip to the bookstore. These long browsing sessions can be like mini-vacations – cheaper than going to the spa, and I get to walk away with something more than a mud pack at the end. Indeed, some browsers aren’t just looking for new blood. They’re looking for more than that. They see browsing as a form of therapy.

Katherine, the self-professed compulsive browser, also “gets” the therapeutic qualities of bookstores. Something about seeing all those books, that many reading opportunities, all in one spot is both soothing and uplifting for her. “While I do use bookshops for browsing – and browsing is really important to me – a lot of the time I try to limit my impulse buying – I find it much easier to control my budget now that I don’t have to buy something just for that ‘I got a new book!’ fix.” Now that she is able to control her impulse shopping gene, when Katherine sees something she wants, she writes it down and later transfers it to a want list on her computer. So it is possible to be both a list-maker and a browser on the lookout for new blood. Sometimes, budget allowing, Katherine goes in without a list and picks up whatever looks interesting. She’ll lug the pile of books around the store and then sit down in the store and sort through her selections before making her final decision on what to buy. After skimming, she’ll make “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” piles – I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who does that! After these splurges, Katherine often buys mostly new-to-her authors, although they tend to be authors she’s heard good things about. When she’s not splurging, she uses Amazon because of the free shipping, discounts, and special offers.

Whereas a lot of readers use shopping as a sort of therapy, Keishon avoids this trap by using browsing as therapy. “I browse when I’m bored, depressed, mad, you name it, walking the book aisles and looking at books are comforting for me. I’ve got over the need to have this compulsion to ‘buy, buy, buy’ and can just look without feeling that I need to buy anything.” At the same time, she may look at the hundreds of books she owns and decide she doesn’t feel like reading any of them. When this happens, she’ll go to bookstore and look for something new to read. She often comes back empty-handed. I wish I could learn some of her self-control, and I’m sure I’m not alone!

All of the Above

Of course, some people – perhaps most people – combine a number of browsing habits. I confess to being one of them. For one thing, I have a lot of interests, from Romance to Fantasy and Science Fiction to Young Adult to reference and history books to Suspense and Horror. With so many books competing for my brain, I need to keep lists, but I also need to browse because that helps me find new and exciting things, too.

Many of us go into stores with a plan – a plan which we toss out or forget the moment we smell all those books. We might go into the store with something specific in mind, but that doesn’t mean we won’t get tempted by something. Particularly if it’s in plain view. It’s our old friend, product placement, again.

What are the miscellaneous browsing habits people talked about? Checking for releases by favorite authors. Looking for books that looked interesting. Using lists. Making lists but leaving them in the car. Forgetting the names of the authors that the reader was looking for. Buying books based on reviews and back cover blurbs. Or for that matter, never ever trusting reviews and back cover boards. Creating lengthy lists. Putting lists on tiny Post-It notes. Getting recommendations from bookstore staff. The very wise Falcon even gives her list to the staff at her local Waldenbooks before the books are released – that way she’s ensured of getting those books and doesn’t have to worry about carrying the list around. LLB does something similar with the bookstore she frequents; all it takes is an email to the owner and the next time she visits the store, all the books she asked for are in her cubby, although she usually browses and picks up additional books based on whatever author or sub-genre glom she’s experiencing at the time.

Like I said, some people fit in the “all of the above” category.

Is It a Genre Thing?

Romance author Julia Quinn wonders if “researching” your purchases (that is, using a list or researching new authors) is strictly a “genre thing.” While romance readers (especially those who are on-line) often enter the bookstore with something specific in mind, not all readers buy books this way. (In other words, not everyone plots out a trip to the bookstore like a siege.) “There are lots of other readers who haven’t a clue when the books they want are coming to stores. Or they just go to the section, looking around because their favorite authors don’t have anything new. There are still lots and lots of browsers.”

This confirms some of what I’ve read about changes in bookstore sales. In the past, when the smaller chain bookstore (such as Waldens or B. Daltons) was king, most bookstores were in malls. Many people walked by those stores without meaning to go into a bookstore, saw an interesting book on display in the front, and then decided to buy it on the spot. This is why the mall bookstores put so many displays near the front. They know that books are impulse buys to most people. However, these casual readers rarely, if ever, go into the superchains such as Borders or Barnes & Noble. So when mall bookstores became less prevalent, these browsers became less and less likely to buy books.

Julia Quinn adds: “It’s actually one of the nice things about being a genre writer. The sections are small enough to be browsable. If you write a general fiction book and it doesn’t ship enough copies to go on the new releases rack, you get put back in the fiction section and no one will every find you. Ever. You just don’t stumble across anything in the general fiction section. But with romance, people really do browse the shelves. Which is why, before you have name recognition, it’s so important to have a cover/title that just leaps off the shelf. Any reader will tell you that it’s the blurb that gets her to buy a book by a new author, but she can’t read the blurb unless she actually picks up the book!”

It’s true – general fiction can be a pain to browse. There are rows and rows of shelves, and if I want to look at one author whose last name starts with D and another whose name starts with W, I’m going to need to do stretches before I start that trek. In the romance section, in most stores, there are only one or two rows. I don’t need to eat an energy bar before going browsing there.

So is browsing dead? Definitely not! It’s not even breathing funny. For the most part, even the readers who avoid browsing still admit to doing some browsing now and then. (They keep trying to get away from it, and it keeps dragging them back in.) And those who avoid browsing altogether make up for it by finding out about potential new authors on-line. (Maybe that’s a type of browsing, only without the clever marketing displays, cover blurbs, and espressos.)

As for myself, I will never ever give up on browsing. Sure, I’ve been burned by bad books before. Haven’t we all? But I’ve also found some of my favorite authors because I picked up a new book on a whim, read the cover copy, and decided that this book was just right.

Besides, browsing is therapeutic. And good exercise, as long as you don’t stop for that mocha drink once you’re done buying books.

Time to Post to the Message Board

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

How well do you enjoy secondary romances? Do you enjoy authors who give you two love stories for the price of one, or do you feel short-changed for the primary couple whenever there’s a secondary romance?

Which are your favorite secondary romances? Why did you enjoy them as much as you did? Did they form a contrast or a complement to the main couple, or was it something else altogether?

Are there any couples you’ve read who were already a couple when you read them and you wish the author would go back and write a prequel for them? Similarly, are there any secondary couples you wish had been given their own book rather than taking a secondary role? Is it because they outshined the primary couple or just because you wanted even more of them? If they outshined the primary, did you enjoy the book anyway?

Is there a particular author who seems to write secondary couples in many of her books? Is this usually effective? Give some details, please.

What would you do if someone gave you a box of shiny new novels for free? Would you cull your favorite authors and give away the rest, try some new authors, or attempt to read everything and hope for the best?

Have you read any of the books Robin picked up at RWA this summer? What’s your assessment of them, and if you haven’t read them, did her comments about any that she’s tried induce you to try one? Finally, what do you make of her “rule” about literary fiction and happy endings?

One way that Robin and Anne’s segments tie together is this: just as Robin ended up leaving RWA with a box full of books, she didn’t take everything offered. So in a way it’s as though she was able to browse for free at a bookstore, albeit a limited one. If you could browse for free, tell us how that would go.

Does browsing give you freedom to step outside your “comfort zone” in that you might end up buying something wholly unexpected? How many “unusual” books that you’ve bought have turned out to be keepers? What were they? Or are you sometimes or always disappointed when you step outside your comfort zone?

What, if any, are your browsing strategies? Do you browse more or less than you used to, and why? Do you make lists of what to buy and what you already have, and if so, do you use them or forget them in at home or in your car? And if you use a list, do you stick with it? If not, do you deviate with retail-price books or only at the UBS? Do you purposely buy online to curtail impulse buying?

How often do you go to the bookstore simply to “window shop?” Are you able to stick to that or do you end up buying anyway? What draws your eye to a book? Do covers ever influence your purchase, or product placement within a bookstore or other retail outlet? And do you use libraries for the majority of or to supplement your purchased reading material?

What have been your best “finds” while browsing? What is it about a book that puts it in the “buy” pile after picking it up while browsing? And, is browsing a therapeutic thing or something done for more practical reasons? Finally, if you are a non-browser, how do you avoid the siren call of all those books?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books, Robin Uncapher, & Anne Marble

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