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At the Back Fence Issue #194
January 15, 2005
From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:
January 15th marks one of those dates at AAR on which we certain events occur. Robin presents her annual look at the previous year’s buried treasures with a little help from her AAR colleagues and, as I did last time, delves into her reading year. Robin’s column provides us with one last chance to share with you some of the great but lesser-noticed reads from the past year, which puts us in good stead for kicking off our annual reader poll.
Robin’s buried treasure column is now in its sixth year and kicks off our ninth annual reader poll. That’s right – we’ve been polling our readers for the best and worst in romance reading for nine years! It is also at this time that I open another annual contest – our Isn’t It Romantic? Contest. This year marks the eighth year we’ve conducted this contest, and as always, it coincides as closely with Valentine’s Day as possible.
Why Look for a Buried Treasure? (Robin Uncapher)
How did you start reading romance? Did you pick up a Nora Roberts because it was on the best seller list? Did your best friend give you a Mary Stewart when you were fourteen and tell you it was the best thing she’d ever read? Did you fall madly in love with Mr. Darcy and go searching through every possible 19th century novel trying to find a similar story, only to find yourself compulsively reading Georgette Heyer?
Every year when I begin thinking about the buried treasures column it brings me back to those first days that I read romance. Unlike many of you I was completely ignorant of the genre and, to make things much worse, had a prejudice against best selling authors. This might seem ridiculous until one considers that my best selling introduction to romance included Robert James Waller and Nicholas Sparks. Like many literary fiction readers I was under the erroneous impression that the NY Times Bestseller list was probably serving up the very best books in a terrible genre. I figured if The Bridges of Madison County and The Notebook didn’t tickle my fancy why would a book by some unknown named Carla Kelly?
In the fall of 1998 I was low on funds and itchy to write a story that might sell. Why not try romance? Everyone said it was a cinch to write, right? I decided to do some research at the library and what I wanted to read was the worse and most mediocre romance books I could find. The reason for this was simple. For years I had written training courses and technical manuals for banks and insurance companies. One key to my success was this. I was very good at copying style. When a client handed me a nearly incomprehensible booklet on inputting tax codes in Italy and told me to write one just like it for the United Kingdom, I was there. When a client told me to write module three of a seventeen module course on managing people, I could make module three look just like modules two and four.
I can hear you snickering now. Wasn’t I just the person you wanted to be reading?
So, in my search for mediocre romances I brought home a stack of potential losers sure to be easy to copy. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that many of these unknown authors were putting out books a whole lot more interesting than those on the bestseller lists! Carla Kelly’s With This Ring was my first experience with a truly buried treasure and it turned my thinking around. Suddenly I did not want to write a book as bad as the midlist, I wanted to write a book that was just as good.
This lead to the birth of the ATBF Buried Treasures column. From the moment I joined AAR I hoped that Laurie’s goal of an ongoing conversation of romance readers having an intelligent and sophisticated conversation about romance novels could lead to romance readers discovering new and exciting romance books—books that almost nobody outside the genre had heard about.
As you probably know this column is always published at the kick off of AAR’s Annual Reader Poll. The idea is that some of you, in reading my suggestions and the suggestions of AAR staff and readers, will come up with some good ideas of which books to vote for.
My Reading Year 2004
I read eighty-four books in 2004, broken out into these genres/sub-genres:
|16||Traditional Regency Romances|
|16||European Historical Romances (1 Georgian, 14 Regency-set, and 1 Victorian)|
|3||American Historical/Frontier Romances|
|3||Young Adult Fiction|
It is always impossible for me to separate my reading year with my impressions of buried treasures in that year. This year , though, it is easier than usual. The reason for that is that what was interesting in 2004, for me, was the large number of very good books that were produced by major authors. With Linda Howard, Jennifer Crusie, Mary Balogh, Lisa Kleypas and Laura Kinsale writing great books, was it even necessary to look for buried treasures in 2004?
Maybe not for people who read 25 or 30 books a year but for the average AAR romance reader it probably was. My favorite buried treasure of 2004 was Nonnie St. George’s Courting Trouble (a book Laurie has written about a couple of times this year, most recently in the last issue of this column as one of her top 2004 reads) . The Duke of St. Fell, the hero and Arabella Swann, the heiress heroine, are both so smart, so witty and charming that you might think that you have come across a long lost Oscar Wilde play. Arabella is an heiress who has always promised herself she would marry for love. She is irritated when she accidentally falls madly in love with a Duke who has set out to marry her in an arranged marriage. I hate when that happens! Many authors trying to write a similar kind of book would create a series of situations and accidents to keep the hero and heroine apart. That is not necessary for author Nonnie St. George, who excels at writing witty dialogue and repartee that the characters make up their own conflicts. And yet, even as you read the verbal sparing it is pretty obvious that these two people are perfect for each other.
Another book I loved was Jessica Benson’s The Accidental Duchess, which is a Regency-in-Disguise but it is also a kind of trad Chick Lit book told in the first person by a woman who is tricked into marrying one twin when she thinks she is marrying another. I laughed all the way through it. If you like trads and/or Chick Lit, it is really worth checking out.
My two other buried treasures were Lorraine Heath’s Smooth Talkin’ Stranger and Janice Kay Johnson’s Mommy Said Goodbye.
Though it’s a single title contemporary, Smooth Talkin’ Stranger reads just like a really good series romance. Its got a CIA agent hero who can’t love and a tortured heroine widow who is still in love with her dead husband. There was nothing really new in Heath’s second contemporary, but reading it reaffirmed for me the idea that there doesn’t have to be anything new in a really good love story. After finishing it I walked around for weeks wishing I could find a series book that was just as good.
My last buried treasure is Mommy Said Goodbye, a series romance – one of only three 2004 series titles I read this year. The plot is, as they say in the Law & Order commercials, “ripped from the headlines.” The hero, Craig, is a man whose wife has mysteriously disappeared. He has a young daughter and is befriended by Robin, the heroine, who also was a friend of his wife’s. Given the creepy evidence of the Scott Peterson case I was both curious and doubtful about this book. Luckily Craig is his own guy and its pretty obvious from the start that he is innocent. Johnson’s story has all the things I like in a series romance. It’s a simple story set in a place I recognize – the suburbs. Craig deals with school teachers, pick-up times and his daughter’s troubles. Robin is smart and sensible. The love scenes in this book are delayed and given the story that made sense too, and did not make it less romantic for me.
All in all, 2004 was a year that didn’t require a reader to search for buried treasures in order to read very good book, but finding buried treasures is always a boon.
In this column you’ve read about my reading year – in the previous issue you read about Laurie’s. Before moving on to buried treasures more specifically, here’s an encapsulated version of Blythe’s reading year for 2004.
|15||European Historical Romances|
|11||Traditional Regency Romances|
|9||Young Adult Fiction|
|7||General or Literary Fiction|
|4||Alternate Reality Romances|
2004 was definitely one of my better “reading years,” especially when compared with the last two. I managed to increase the number of books read to 81. It seems like nothing compared to most of my colleagues (and even compared to my own past reading habits), but it’s a good personal showing for me. The categories break as you see them to the right:Blythe’s Reading Year
I was surprised to see that I had read so many contemporaries (more than any other single category), perhaps because few of them were very memorable books for me. I was also discouraged to see the continuing downslide of my American Historical reading. American Historicals were really my first love, but they seem so hard to come by these days. I think I’d kill for a really good colonial romance. Of those I read, the only one I liked was By Twilight, by Bess Henderson. The other two were, regrettably, terrible. On the other hand, the most encouraging trend for me this year was in my European Historical reading. I can’t remember the last time I read so many that I really enjoyed. Mary Balogh, Loretta Chase, Julia Ross, Julia Quinn, and Diane Farr all wrote European Historicals this year that I really enjoyed. I also read some good Regencies, most notably Miss Thornrose and the Rake (Geraldine Burrows).
I only grade books I review, so my grades don’t really tell the whole story about the quality of books I’ve read during the year. But from a reviewer’s standpoint I find it useful to tally them up anyway. The grades I gave are as you see them to the left.
This is more or less a typical pattern for me, though I was very excited about writing my first DIK review in over a year and a half (I should note that though I read the book in 2004, the review and the book were published in 2005).
I think my Buried Treasure would be The Wicked Lover by Julia Ross. I read it at the beginning of last year, but the wonderful opening scene with the hero’s mistress burning all his clothes has never left my mind. I also have to mention Miss Thornrose and the Rake. I know it’s ineligible for the contest (first published by Five Star) but nobody heard of it until Signet published it this year, and it was really a fantastic Regency.
My reading goal for the coming year is to crack 100 again, something I used to do routinely.
More on Buried Treasures
Rather than present to you buried treasures by individual, this year we’ll showcase buried treasures by sub-genre. We’ll list them as they appear on the ballot for the annual reader poll for the sake of consistency.
Man in a Kilt by Sandy Blair – AAR reviewer Jane Jorgenson recommends this as a buried treasure. She wrote that, “I hate to make the comparison, but this one reminded me of older Garwoods because of the humor and the relationship between the h/h.”
The Norman’s Bride by Teri Brisbin – AAR Pandora’s Box columnist Linda Hurst loved this book. She wrote, “The Norman was the villain of the previous book and Teri did a fabulous job of redeeming him and found the perfect heroine for him. A real gem that I am afraid did not get the attention it should have.”
The Linnet by Elizabeth English aka Minogue – New AAR reviewer Cheryl Sneed liked Minogue’s The Prince so much that she sought out her medieval trilogy. The last of these books, The Linnet, turned out to be her favorite medieval of the year. AAR reviewer Lynn Spencer also loved this romance set during the bloody border disputes between the English and Scots. In her Desert Isle Keeper review Lynn wrote: “With brilliantly written characters and a story powerful enough to suit them, The Linnet is an all-round winner.”
The Knave and the Maiden by Blythe Gifford – Lynn Spencer selects this romance about a mercenary knight and a young woman who believes that she will be a nun. What distinguishes The Knave and the Maiden is its emphasis on medieval thinking, which is based far more on faith and magic and lacks scientific assumptions that we take for granted. In her review Lynn wrote, “Every now and again, though, an author does a truly excellent job of creating a different world and filling that world with people who really belong to it. In her debut novel, Blythe Gifford has done just that.”
Lady of the Knight by Jackie Ivie. – Though it was thought to be only average by Cheryl, Jane loved Lady of the Knight. This 14th century romance set in Scotland is another of Jane’s buried treasures. She wrote, “I’m a fan of cross-dressing romances to begin, with but what really got me was the doomed aspect of the romance. I wasn’t sure how the author would work it all out – and this even though it’s a romance and of course it would work out. I loved the strong, fatalistic Morgan as heroine and thought Zander was a perfect match for her.”
European Historical Romance
Under A Lucky Star by Diane Farr – Like many of our AAR staff, editor/reviewer Ellen Michelleti likes this book about a young woman who needs to marry for money, and the wonderful man who falls in love with her. When she recommended the book Ellen wrote that the book, “featured the best hero of the year – Derek Whittaker. He was perfect, handsome, kind, had a good sense of humor and not one fault.” Farr, who previously wrote traditional Regencies, is an auto-buy for several of us at AAR; we look forward to her signing a new contract so that she may publish additional books in the near future.
The Spare by Carolyn Jewel – Lists editor/reviewer Rachel Potter choses this book, saying, “This is a Regency Historical, but you would never know it, so atmospheric and funkily paranormal is it. A very different read, and one I highly enjoyed.I really enjoyed the ghost angle, and I’m not much for that usually”
The Runaway Duke by Julie Anne Long – Ellen recommends this story of a duke who hides from his past working on an estate and falls in love with the daughter of the house. In her DIK review, Ellen wrote, “I thought the characters were delightful, and it also featured a couple of interesting and reformable villains whom I hope to meet again.”
The Wicked Lover by Julia Ross – Blythe selects this book as her buried treasure. She wrote, “I read it at the beginning of last year, but the wonderful opening scene with the hero’s mistress burning all his clothes has never left my mind.
A Scandalous Situation by Patricia Frances Rowell – Cheryl choses this book about a heroine was the victim of a gang-rape years before. Cheryl described the hero as, about the sweetest, most patient, beta-est, guy I’ve ever read – and he had to be in that situation.”
Must Have Been Moonlight by Melody Thomas – Cheryl recommends this 1870s set romance with a background in Egypt and England. It’s a romance between an independent and reform minded suffragist and an English soldier. She liked it so much that she went looking for Thomas’s previous book. Cheryl told us that, “The Victorian Egyptian setting was different and vivid, and here is another couple who do not have an easy road to travel.”
Traditional Regency Romance
Miss Thornrose and the Rake by Geraldine Burrows. This traditional regency reissue is one of Blythe’s favorites of the year. It’s the story of a girl from a family dedicated to good works. In her review she wrote that it is “one of the most entertaining Regencies I’ve read in years.” The book pairs heroine Verity, a determined spinster with a former rake, Alaric Tierney, Earl of Brathmere. Unfortunately it is ineligible for the AAR Annual Reader Poll, having first published by Five Star in 1999.
Courting Trouble by Nonnie St. George. Quite a few members of the AAR staff, including Laurie, Jane, and me, love this extremely clever drawing room comedy. In her Desert Isle Keeper review Jane wrote, “It made me smile and laugh and sigh. St. George’s incredibly fast and sharp dialogue is spoken by a hero and heroine who are as delightful as they are intelligent, and the supporting cast sparkles. Add in hilarious spoofing of some of the romance genre’s hoariest clichés and you have a winner.”
American Historical/Frontier Romance
Moon in Water by Elizabeth Grayson – Leigh recommends this arranged marriage romance, which takes place on a riverboat on the Mississippi in 1867. Chase, the hero, agrees to marry a young, pregnant woman in order to become the owner of a riverboat. In her review Lynn wrote, “This is a rich, emotional story that is engaging from the very first page.”
Somebody Wonderful by Kate Rothwell – This is a late 19th century historical set in New York City. The hero is a New York City cop. The heroine is a young woman who has run away from being forced into a brothel. Reviewer Jennifer Keirans named the book as one of her buried treasures for 2004. In the review she wrote of the first chapter, “first-time author Kate Rothwell creates a quiet intimacy between Mick and Timona that really moved me.”
Echoes by Erin Grady – Lynn and editor/reviewer Sandy Coleman both select this romantic suspense novel about a New York woman who is summoned to California to take care of her niece when her sister suddenly disappears. Sandy, who awarded Echoes DIK status, “This book struck me on so many levels. The basic plot itself isn’t that different. What is different, though, is the extraordinary skill the author showed in telling two fully fleshed-out stories of love and murder, with one being just as intriguing as the other.”
Smooth Talkin’ Stranger by Lorraine Heath – Laurie and I both liked this romance between small town widow Serena Hamilton and Hunter Fletcher, a mysterious CIA agent who avoids attachments. As reviewer Leigh Thomas wrote, “It’s a very familiar, very predictable story, and in many ways it feels like nothing more than a pretty good Harlequin Superromance. But Heath’s gentle storytelling and memorable character moments make it a moving experience all the same.”
Fair Play by Deirdre Martin – Leigh recommends this romance about a PR executive and a hockey player from her old neighborhood. When suggesting Martin’s book, Leigh wrote that although the book had its flaws, it was so “involving and engaging that I couldn’t put it down. Just a great read.”
Alternate Reality Romance
The Royal Treatment by Mary Janice Davidson. Author MaryJanice Davidson has gone a long way in one year. In 2003 – who knew? But in spite of her success with Undead and Unwed and Undead and Unemployed, The Royal Treatment probably qualifies as a buried treasure. Laurie recommends it as one of hers – and she is still loving Davidson’s snarky, bullet-speed dialogue and terrific love scenes. In The Royal Treatment Alaska is a sovereign nation whose king and family are, to put it mildly, eccentric. In our review of the book, Leigh wrote, “The story abounds with clever bits and unexpected moments of wit. The dialogue is very sharp and often quite funny.”
The Prince by Elizabeth Minogue aka Elizabeth English – Cheryl names Minogue/English her big discovery of the year. While the author is new to fantasy, Cheryl found Minogue’s world “to be a fascinating place,” adding, “it is the complicated relationship between Florian and Rosamund, with its many layers, which thoroughly engrossed me as they worked to find a balance between duty, destiny and love.”
Run No More by Catherine Mulvany – Ellen recommends this book, sharing that it is “a time travel romantic suspense, set in Brazil. It had a May December romance that really worked, and a most unusual twist at the end.”
Heart Duel by Robin Owns – AAR Reviewer Liz Zink awarded this book DIK status and editor/reviewer Jennifer Keirans also names it as one of her buried treasures of 2004. Heart Duel is the third in a series and is a fantasy romance set in another world. Though not all of our reviewers loved the series, Liz wrote in her review that they are all on her keeper shelf and advised readers in her Heart Duel review to “Run, don’t walk to the nearest bookstore and pick this one up, you won’t be disappointed!”
Mommy Said Goodbye by Janice Kay Davidson – I loved this series romance about a man accused of murdering his wife. In our review of the book, Rachel wrote, “Mommy Said Goodbye is a very interesting story about how a family and a community copes with the unsolved disappearance of one of their own. Johnson skillfully explores a number of very complicated emotional issues, and that, combined with the mystery, makes this one of the more absorbing category romances I’ve read lately.”
Emergency Contact by Susan Peterson – Leigh also recommends this amnesia story, writing that that Peterson’s book was that “rare series suspense that actually generated some real suspense, more so than many single-titles.”
Miranda Blue Calling by Michelle Curry Wright – Rachel adores this book about a Chick Lit heroine who moves from New York City to Colorado to start a home business calling on elderly shut-ins. She meets a farmer, William Wordsworth Steadman, whom Rachel describes in her review as “Kind, helpful, creative, thoughtful, and delightfully quirky.”
The Truth about Forever by Sarah Dessen – Rachel also selects this Young Adult novel about a young girl who has lost her dad. Rachel wrote that this book, “is her most romantic to date and a beautiful piece of writing to boot. Why isn’t everyone reading Sarah Dessen???”
Califia’s Daughters by Leigh Richards, aka mystery author Laurie King – Jane suggests this post-apocalyptic book set in the near future. She wrote that, “Disease and bioterrorism has killed a large part of the world’s population and most of the men. So men are now the protected group and women have had to become the hunter gatherers. This book was dark and sometimes bleak but also incredibly gripping. I read it in one sitting though my stomach was often tied in knots. Weird I know, but I hope, hope, hope that the author will write another soon.”
Coyote Dream by Jessica Davis Stein – When recommending this book. Leigh wrote that it was “a character-rich and insightful love story between a Jewish New Yorker and a Navajo artist from Arizona. It dealt with people’s complicated emotions and the contrast between different cultures more effectively than most romance novels do.”
The Perfect Cover by Maureen Tan – Jennifer picks this book as one of her buried treasures. She wrote, “Like other novels in Silhouette’s new Bombshell line, A Perfect Cover is not a romance. It’s a suspense novel starring a smart and resourceful female heroine, working undercover to solve a series of ugly murders. It’s pretty darn good.
Earlier this week I asked our readers to post their favorite 2004 Buried Treasures on the Potpourri Board. Here are some of their choices:
Today we kick off two annual features – our Isn’t it Romantic? Contest, now in its eighth year, and our Annual Reader Poll, now in its ninth year.
The Isn’t it Romantic Contest gives readers the opportunity to share their most romantic true story and perhaps win a great “bookie” prize. The contest’s winner will receive one of the remaining AAR bookbags stuffed to overflowing with books. (The public announcement of the winner will be made in the February 15th ATBF column, along with the story submitted.) Click here for further details.
The links in the paragraph above and below are “jump” links that will open new windows in your browser. That’s because we don’t want you to close this column for the contest or poll before you read the questions related to this ATBF.
As you’ve picked up from reading this column, our annual reader poll begins today and runs through midnight, February 14th. We began this poll of the best (and worst) romances many years ago – our first awards were for romances published in 1996. This year we are obviously polling for books first published in the US in 2004. For the first time in years we’ve not added a new category – we know how lengthy the ballot is and how much time it requires from you.
Mid-way through the voting process we’ll be posting interim results. And because last year you asked, we’ve again provided a list of all the books granted DIK status by AAR Reviewers; you can find it on the ballot page (but if the review was written by a reader or author, you won’t find it on this list). Results of the ninth annual reader poll will be presented in the March 1st issue of this column.
Please respect our request not to post your list of poll answers on any of our message boards until we’ve brought you the March 1st column.
Time to Post to the Message Board
This column kicks off our annual reader poll, and as such is a look back at 2004 both in general terms and as regards buried treasures. We began to discuss the 2004 reading year in the previous issue of ATBF; feel feel to continue that discussion now, and to also talk about your 2004 buried treasures. While AAR staff mainly focused on buried treasures published in 2004, not all did, and neither should you be limited in your discussion. Because we’d like to “save” discussion of your favorite 2004 romances for a future column, let’s frame this discussion around buried treasures. Obviously there will be some cross-over, but by framing it around buried treasures, we’re less likely to duplicate discussion. Let’s also take this opportunity to talk about how it feels to discover a buried treasure author or book. Finally, if any of the titles listed in this column were buried treasures for you, now’s the time to share that; other readers may pick up on your enthusiasm, coupled with ours, and read those books in time to vote on them.
Open our ballot form in a new window so you can use it after posting to the message board
Robin Uncapher, and Blythe Barnhill,
With terrific feedback from AAR staff and readers
Details for submitting an entry in this year’s Isn’t It Romantic? Contest
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board
(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)