At the Back Fence Issue #210

November 7, 2005

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

This time around we’ll be introducing a premise I’d like to call The Cold Shoulder. Anne and Robin join me with their takes on this premise, and then we’ll delve into reviewing. Diana Ketterer joined AAR under that assumed name at roughly the same time she signed with a publisher for her first book. As with Catherine Bishop, Diana’s true identity was unknown to all at AAR save her editor and me, and none of the books she was assigned for review were from her sub-genre. Alas, Diana no longer had time to review for AAR, but I asked if she would write a segment on what it’s like to review books as a published author.

Following her segment is a look at the types of books AAR reviewers find most difficult to handle. For me those are the books earning B+, C+, and C reviews. The B+ review often begs the question: Why wasn’t it an A? As for C+ reviews, there’s a fine line between “better than average” and “recommended with qualifications,” and we’ll explore that. Finally, the C review – just how does one write about a book that’s entirely average? In addition to my own toughies, several AAR staff share their own thoughts on reviewing, and which reviews present the biggest challenge.

The Cold Shoulder (Laurie Likes Books)

 As I closed the book on Elizabeth Rolls’ His Lady Mistress, it occurred to me that to some extent, both that book and an earlier release by the same author – The Dutiful Rake – were built to some degree on a premise I’d never identified before. That premise: The Cold Shoulder, which I can best describe as a hero not revealing to the heroine (or vice versa, or both) that he has feelings for her, feelings that go deeper than the physical. The Cold Shoulder is sometimes limited to non-bedroom activities, but in other romances The Cold Shoulder extends to the bedroom with the hero or heroine or both refusing physical intimacy along with emotional intimacy, as when the hero in my favorite Medieval Romance, Velvet Bond, who has “issues” with women and trust, refuses to bed his very willing wife.

The Cold Shoulder is often connected with The Big Misunderstanding, but the two are not one and the same. The Cold Shoulder of most interest to me occurs when it is extended to protect the other party. Although, for instance, many small misunderstandings work to keep the hero and heroine emotionally and physically distant from one another in The Dutiful Rake, it is the heroine’s belief that the hero married her out of guilt and pity; as such she hides her love from him with The Cold Shoulder in part because she believes he doesn’t truly want her, but also because she feels it would be unfair of him to burden him with her love. For his part, the hero comes to believe that his bad behavior destroyed any chance that the heroine could love him and cannot force his affections on her as a result.

The physical Cold Shoulder precedes the emotional one; the book begins with the hero rescuing the heroine from a dire set of situations and behaving not as the rake he is, but as her knight in shining armor. Unfortunately, their marriage is one of convenience and too soon “Marc” reverts to being “Lord Rutherford.” Meg doesn’t understand this change in her tender and kind husband, and the cold sets in. He believes he is giving her “a break” from his attentions and takes his leave for an evening’s entertainment. Distraught that he would leave her so soon after their marriage, she refuses him her bed when he seeks her out later that evening. He doesn’t realize that she is horribly sad – he just sees the typical frigid English wife. The cold deepens shortly thereafter when Meg suffers one of her nightly bad dreams and looks for her husband, but his bed is empty. She mentions to him the next morning that she’d gone looking for him and he suggests she not put herself in such a position to be disappointed; as the husband he will seek her out should he desire her body. It’s true that misunderstandings and a lack of communication exist between them, but at times for both, Meg and Marc hold themselves apart not out of hurt or anger, but to prevent themselves from forcing their love on the other.

Eventually the ice breaks between the two, and Meg tentatively asks, “Then we can be friends again?” Marcus doesn’t give her a disdainful Cold Shoulder in return, but he is devastated by her question. He doesn’t want her friendship…he wants her love, but believes he so destroyed any chance that Meg could love him after he treated her so badly, and decides he should not yet reveal his true feelings for her.

And now he cared. Without ever intending such a thing, he had fallen in love with Meg after making a bargain with her that now shamed his soul with its sordid assumptions. And she had accepted it. Not because she was after his money or title, but because she had been desperate and had had nowhere else to go. – and because she had been too innocent and unsophisticated to see it for the insult it was. With a groan he realized he had taken advantage of her as surely as Winterbourne had attempted to.

And now she was pregnant, radiant with joy. Had thanked him as though he had bestowed a priceless gift upon her, when what he had given could prove to be a death sentence. He wanted to go to her and tell her he loved her. Beg her to start over with him. Let him court her and woo her as he should have done.

But even if it now revolted him, they had made a bargain. He had promised not to make demands on Meg, not to interfere with her. Just because he no longer wanted the freedom he had reserved for himself was not a sufficient reason to break his word. She had accepted his word in good faith. How was she supposed to understand that his proposal had been an attempt to hide his own fears when even he had not realized that?

…But he could not go on the way he had been. Even if he did not dare to ask for her love, they would have to be friends if she were to be happy.

And so it goes, until they make love and Meg feels so close to Marc that the intimacy nearly breaks her heart. She desperately wants to tell him she loves him, to pretend he loves her, and when he calls her “my little love,” her anguish can’t be contained. As she cries, she begs him, “Don’t…please, Marc…don’t say that,” at which point he feels equally desperate:

The words nearly tore his heart out. It was too late, he thought desperately as he turned her gently to face him. She didn’t want his love. He had hurt her too badly, confused her with his contradictory behavior. Then, as he saw the tear-drowned eyes and the trembling mouth, hope surged in him “Don’t say it” he asked. Why not, my darling?”

She saw him through a blur of tears. “I can’t bear it,” she said brokenly. “Not…not unless you love me.” Oh, God, what had she said? He didn’t want her love. No one had ever wanted her love. Numbly, she waited for the inevitable rejection, for him to gently tell her that he could not love her, that he was sorry, that he was just fond of her. His very kindness would make it the worst rejection of all.

His voice was barely recognizable, tearing with emotion. “Then you love me, Meg?”

“Yes,” she whispered. “I’m sorry Marc…I can’t help it.” She tried to pull away from him, but found that his arms were drawing her back, cradling her against him as he kissed the tears away.

“I think we need to renegotiate our bargain, then, my little love,” he said shakenly. Something along the lines of a heart for a heart. Mine was yours long ago, even if I was too proud to admit it and ask for yours in return. As I do now.”

Meg joyously tells Marc he’s always had it, that she knew she loved him the moment he asked her to marry him. Not only was he kind to her, but he treated her as an equal, offering her a bargain between equals. Unlike the other people from her past who had either pitied or despised her because of her mother’s reputation, he alone accepted her.

When Marc hears this, he feels shame over the true marriage of convenience bargain they struck before marrying:

That vile bargain he had struck with her! All these weeks it had kept them apart, tormenting him, nearly destroying Meg. Yet she had continued to love him and he, fool that he was, had never seen it.

There’s a moment equally as touching near the end of His Lady Mistress. Unlike TDR, HLM is more strongly built on a Big Misunderstanding, but nonetheless, there’s a poignant moment where The Cold Shoulder comes to an end as the hero and heroine make love and she exclaims in a moment of passion:

“Please…Max…love me now.”

…Shaken to the depth of his soul, he whispered, I do love you, Verity. Now and always.”

Her mouth trembled. “Max? No, you can’t. I didn’t mean…”

He kissed the corner of her mouth. “Yes, my darling, you did. And so do I.”

While the portions excerpted from the two Elizabeth Rolls’ books illustrate the thaw of The Cold Shoulder, an excerpt below from Mary Balogh’s The Obedient Bride dramatically illustrates its onset.

In this marvelous trad Regency, the hero marries the heroine out of duty, and the heroine goes into her married life quietly, offering herself totally and gladly to her husband. The Cold Shoulder is not that when he makes love to her he does so perfunctorily, with no thought to her pleasure. And The Cold Shoulder as it begins from her end is not unkind – it is an act of self-preservation by a kind and caring woman who is obedient to her husband’s every wish and accepting of his benign neglect as her lot in life. She adores him and believes herself undeserving of such a fine man. Eventually, though, it does rankle that she is more animated with his friends than she is with him, and yet it isn’t until she discovers that he is not faithful to her and questions him about it that Arabella truly turns The Cold Shoulder on her husband Geoffrey:

Lord Astor’s face had turned chalky white. “Arabella,” he said, “please don’t distress yourself. It is really quite unimportant. You are my wife. It is you—”

“It is ‘unimportant’!” she said, her eyes blazing into his. He looked away from her. “It means nothing to you, my lord, except base physical pleasure? Shall I tell you what it has meant to me? It meant pain on our wedding night, dreadful pain that lasted for several days. But I did not mind, because I was your wife and we had been made one, we were bound by a sacred tie. I have been careful in my duty to you, believing that only I could give you that. And I did not want you to be disappointed. And it is unimportant to you?”

“I did not mean you,” he said. “Arabella, please, let me explain.”

“I have never said no to you,” she said. “I have never shirked my duty. If it was not enough, if you wanted more from me, why did you not tell me or ask for what you wanted or come to me more often? I would not have denied you. I believe you know I would not. I have told you and I have tried to show during every moment since our marriage that I mean to be an obedient wife and that I wish to make you comfortable. You have sinned against me terribly to take a mistress.”

He turned away and walked to the window. He stood looking sightlessly out. “Yes, I have, Arabella,” he said.

“I know I am not pretty and that I do not know much about the world,” she said, “and I know you would have far preferred to marry Frances or some other attractive lady. I know that. But you did marry me. No one forced you to do it. You did it of your own free will. And so you took on a duty too. You owed it to me to be faithful. And I have always been willing to learn. If there was anything I could have done to make you more comfortable, I would have done it readily. But you have never asked, and you have never offered to teach me.”

“Arabella, don’t do this to yourself,” he said, his brow against a pane of the window. “None of this is your fault, believe me. You have been everything I could expect of a bride, and more. Perhaps if you would let me explain…”

“I don’t want to hear you speak,” she said, “and I don’t want to see you or feel your touch. I don’t want you near me anymore. I don’t want you in my bed. I know I am your wife and that I must remain so. And as your wife I owe you obedience. You will not find me disobedient in the future, my lord. If you choose to speak to me, I will listen. If you choose to touch me, I shall not flinch. And if you choose to come to my bed, I shall receive you dutifully. I shall bear your children if I must, and love them too because they are mine and cannot help being yours. But I want you to know one thing. Everything I do for you from this moment on will be done out of duty alone. I will do nothing willingly.”

His hands gripped the windowsill. His eyes closed. “You will not find me making your life a misery, Arabella,” he said.

“I thought you were perfect,” she said. “I have felt awkward and tongue-tied and apologetic because I could not compete with your splendor. You have not deserved my admiration, my lord. I no longer respect or like you.”

The more I think about The Cold Shoulder, in some form or another it exists in most romances – every time a hero or heroine withholds feelings, or thoughts of love, isn’t that a bit of The Cold Shoulder? If a hero or heroine loves the other but isn’t ready to reveal that tidbit of information, is that The Cold Shoulder? The Cold Shoulder doesn’t have to be part of The Big Mis, nor do I think it should engender the shudders that go through most of us when we consider The Big Mis. My view, though, isn’t shared by everyone. When I mentioned the premise as it exists in The Dutiful Rake on AAR’s internal mail loop, Linda Hurst proclaimed, “This is the dreaded Big Misunderstanding personified – I detest books like this. Is it too much to ask that the couple actually talk to each other??? The description you have given in a backblurb or review would get this one put back on the shelf by me.”

Cheryl Sneed chimed in, “And I’m with Linda about the scenario you give with the Elizabeth Rolls’ book as being not so much a “cold shoulder” but a Big Mis. Or at least a subcategory of the Big Mis. I don’t have much patience for these kinds of things. Like her, I just want to smack them and say “talk to each other!” Seems a contrived conflict.”

Although Robin and Anne, my two ATBF co-columnists, have tastes incredibly different from my own, both had a more positive reaction to The Cold Shoulder than Linda and Cheryl.

When The Heroine Turns A Cold Shoulder (Anne Marble)

We’ve all read romances where the heroine stopped talking to the hero, and even (gasp) stopped sleeping with him. For example, when I thought of The Cold Shoulder premise, I remembered Anne Avery’s Medieval romance, Bartered Bride, in which the heroine spent half of the book refusing to sleep with the hero. Both were stubborn throughout this story, and the hero also withheld important information from the heroine. Then again, at least they didn’t shout and scream at each other – and their actions made sense. In other words, the stubbornness was in character.

But is this really The Cold Shoulder, or is it The Big Mis in a pretty dress? Maybe in some cases they’re really just the same thing, but when The Cold Shoulder is done well, then it’s no longer in Big Mis territory. As usual, it all comes down to the characterizations. To me, The Cold Shoulder hinges on believable emotions, something we can easily relate to. The Big Mis, on the other hand, is often irrational. When characters go off on a Big Mis tangent, we are more likely to want to shout “Stop behaving like morons and talk with each other!”

The classic Cold Shoulder may be Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play about a whole city full of women giving their men The Cold Shoulder. (Actually, the version I read was much blunter than that.) By the way, Laura Lee Guhrke’s Breathless has elements of Lysistrata because of the way the women of a turn-of-the-century town find unusual ways to protest the “social club” in town. Hmmm. in some cases do you think The Cold Shoulder premise could be a tribute to Lysistrata

Yet The Big Mis is older than Aristophanes – perhaps older than The Cold Shoulder story. So what makes The Cold Shoulder different, if different it is? The major difference as I see it is that The Cold Shoulder is deliberate, while the Big Mis is usually accidental.

Also, is this sort of behavior more acceptable to us than a more typical Big Mis plot? If so, why? Is it because it reflects the way some real-life women respond to arguments? Maybe we can relate to this more than some other behaviors. Is it passive-aggressive? Or is it poignant and believable?

Maybe looking into a Big Mis can help illuminate the difference between the two premises Let’s look at a typical Big Mis situation. In Johanna Lindsey’s All I Need Is You, after the hero and heroine sleep together for the first time, they don’t talk about it. So guess what happens? Casey thinks that the sex meant nothing to Damian, and Damian thinks that the sex meant nothing to Casey.

This may be a Big Mis, but isn’t The Cold Shoulder. The problems in the relationship don’t occur because of true anger, or even because of passive-aggressive behavior. They occur from stupidity and stubbornness. To me, the true Cold Shoulder comes from taking a stand, even if it’s often the wrong stand to take. The hero may do something dreadfully wrong to her, or she may think he did something wrong, but in either case, the heroine reacts the only way she knows.

What about heroines who keep a secret? Is that a form of The Cold Shoulder? It could very well be. After all, by refusing to spill the beans, the heroine is building up a wall between herself and the hero. In some cases, The Big Secret verges more on The Big Mis, simply because there is often no logical reason for the heroine to withhold the information. But of course, there are stories where we can believe in and understand the heroine’s reasons for refusing to give up her secrets.

So why do heroines sometimes give the hero The Cold Shoulder? I mean, why not just talk to him, or yell at him if he’s really that big of a cad? In many cases, I think it’s a sort of power trip. Angry heroes can bluster and even threaten, and in bodice rippers, they often did worse. Generally, heroines can’t do this. Instead, they often have to try to gain power by shutting out the hero. It’s a sort of “quiet strength” moment, although instead of sacrificing something to save a loved one, this is one case where the heroine is sacrificing the love. But in the best stories, The Cold Shoulder is no mere power trip. Instead, The Cold Shoulder comes because of raw emotion – because of betrayal or because the heroine is trying to be true to herself. Indeed, in some social situations, the heroines truly have little choice but to shut out the hero. Society tells governesses and other servants that they must not get involved with the nobles. Let’s say you’re a governess during the Regency and the father of your charge falls in love with you and keeps pursuing you? It wouldn’t be realistic to have the heroine give in right away and started “shacking up” with him – yet many writers have let heroines in similar situations do just that. More realistic in this situation would be the heroine who tries to shut out the pursuing hero.

We’ve been talking about heroines giving the hero a Cold Shoulder. Until I read Laurie’s segment on this topic, I couldn’t really think of that many. At first, I thought of a hero giving the heroine The Cold Shoulder and winced, because it gave me the image of a whiny, passive-aggressive hero. We generally expect heroes to react to emotional crises with angry outbursts, not by shutting out the heroine. But after reading Laurie’s segment, I realized that a hero can be so deeply in love that he for whatever reason, he cannot bear to let the heroine enter his world completely. So he must shut her out. What drives a hero to these lengths? It can range from everything to fear that the heroine doesn’t love him to fear that he’s not good enough for her and thus must push her away.

Still, I think The Cold Shoulder is more “heroine territory” than something we associate with heroes. After all, try to envision a Linda Howard hero refusing to sleep with the heroine because he thinks she’s an industrial spy. Wow, how long would that last? A minute? Most romance heroes are Alphas or Gammas. When things don’t go their way, these heroes are more likely to resort to things such as getting angry, calling the heroine names, manipulating the heroine, or lying to her. And more often than not, they can get away with it because they’re the hero. So is the heroine who gives a hero The Cold Shoulder really any worse than an angry hero who blusters and pushes his way around? I should think not.

Besides, for all that… Do we really want characters to behave perfectly anyway? I don’t want to read about stupid people, but when the story calls for it, I don’t mind reading about stubborn people, or people who are afraid to love for fear of being rejected. Yes, now and then, even distrustful people and angry people. As long as they make up over a realistic period of time and make up for what they did. Just as I expect real people to eventually get over their problems and treat each other well, I expect the same out of characters in a novel.

The Cold Shoulder (Robin Uncapher)

Lets say you are a top-of-the-line Regency romance hero, a marquis, an earl or even a duke. Suddenly, and without warning, your lovely bride stops speaking to you. Oh, there might be a word here or there, but you know The Cold Shoulder, when you see it. She glares at you, gives you the silent treatment and avoids being alone with you. Depending on the circumstances she might refuse your bed, or at least try to refuse it. She might suggest going to your country estate to rusticate all by herself. She might avoid spending your money, a tactic you find particularly cruel.

What could it be?

Did she overhear you when you were bidding farewell to your mistress, the beautiful, witty and thoroughly immoral married woman who was devastated when you dumped her? Is she annoyed that you sent this lady an invitation to a party in your home? Did your bride discover that you had planned to marry money (though you fell madly in love upon actually meeting her)? Did she overhear you telling your best friend that she was too ugly to marry (when in fact you were trying to run him off)?

Did she find out that you thought she was a prostitute when you met?

Or, could it be that you are just too handsome, rich and charming to love someone as ordinary as her, and so she is protecting herself by trying not to fall in love. Ah that must be it! Also, she finds you so sexually compelling that her feelings terrify her, so she does her best not to interact too much and become even more vulnerable.

Which is it?

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that, had this been real life, you would be overlooking the obvious. She’s not that into you.

Lucky for you this is not real life. Unless you are a throw-away side kick or a doomed-to-die first husband, we can happily conclude that your wife is giving you The Cold Shoulder for a very solid reason. There are a hundred and fifty pages to go in this book and after the first big love scene the author has to find a way to keep you two arguing despite your amazing love for one another.

Ah, The Cold Shoulder! When Laurie suggested this as a topic I was delighted. I love sparring and I love the silent treatment almost as much. I think Anne is on to something when she says it’s a power trip. Usually it’s a power grab from whichever character, hero or heroine, is the least powerful in the relationship. And often it is done purely for self protection. The person who is giving The Cold Shoulder is actually the one who is most vulnerable, who feels that the situation is spinning out of control and that withdrawing from the other person is the wisest course.

A couple of examples spring to mind. In Janice Kay Johnson’s The Perfect Mom, the heroine, Kathleen Monroe, is one of those women, everyone envies. She is beautiful, a wonderful housekeeper and she used to be married to a successful lawyer. But Kathleen’s perfect world falls apart when her husband cannot handle their daughter’s anorexia. Suddenly Kathleen is having one of those out-of-body experiences I seem to be watching a lot of friends go through. She is divorced, in a strange house and broke. Her daughter’s illness is critical. She feels like a complete failure.

Kathleen’s romance with the capable and kind cabinetmaker who fixes her kitchen is a surprise to them both. It’s a surprise to her because she has been so wrapped up in her daughter’s illness the last thing she expected was love. It is a surprise to Logan Carr, the cabinet maker, because Kathleen is not the kind of woman he would ever expect would be interested in him. She’s too beautiful, too accomplished and too educated. She’s used to a different kind of life with different kinds of friends. What could she possibly see in him?

Of course we know exactly what Kathleen sees in Logan. We know about her loneliness, her terrible fear of her daughter’s illness and the fact that she and her husband seemed to have had no emotional intimacy whatsoever.

But Logan doesn’t see it, and so when he comes by one evening and finds Kathleen’s husband in her home, he panics. Kathleen’s look of discomfort said it all to him, She would never love him. And so Logan gives Kathleen one hell of a Cold Shoulder.

Up until the meeting of Kathleen’s husband and Logan, the romance in this book is surprisingly placid. In fact the most dramatic moments are not between Logan and Kathleen but between Kathleen and her daughter. Logan and Kathleen have had a surprisingly routine courtship. There is one unexpected, and completely unrealistic, embrace at the start of the book, when Kathleen throws herself into a stranger’s arms and cries desperately over her daughter but most of the romance takes place on dates! That’s right, dates. Logan takes Kathleen out to dinner. It’s so normal I kept wondering if one of them would fall over from food poisoning, just to add a little suspense to the story.

When Logan meets Kathleen’s husband the turning point is when he glances over at Kathleen and sees himself in her eyes. He knows she sees a “homely man, “ a man without a college education.” Logan is so humiliated he leaves and The Cold Shoulder begins. When Kathleen finally goes to his house, he has sex with her and humiliates her by telling her it’s the only reason he is interested in her.

Needless to say there is a lot of groveling before the HEA, but this was an example of The Cold Shoulder that did not work too well for me.

I thought a lot about why and the answer was that to be really effective the reader needs to empathize with the person who is giving The Cold Shoulder. There has to be a good reason. If it is a misunderstanding it needs to be one that is calculated and believable. But far better are books where The Cold Shoulder is given for a very good reason, where the conflict between the hero and heroine is one where we can see both sides.

Mary Balogh is particularly effective at describing a Cold Shoulder triggered by some terrible hurt. In A Precious Jewel, the hero’s version of The Cold Shoulder is to ask the heroine, Prissy, a former prostitute, to have sex with him in the way that they did when she worked. This broke her heart because it sucked all the emotion out of the act. It was sex but it was cold.

There is no real misunderstanding between Gerald and Prissy. Prissy does not understand the reason for Gerald’s coldness, but she knows how hard it must be for a man like Gerald to contemplate a serious relationship with someone of her background. And this is true. Even though the initial reason for Gerald’s coldness has nothing to do with Prissy’s background, his failure to offer her more than a life as his mistress is based on that fact.

I can think of a number of Balogh stories that feature a Cold Shoulder. In The Notorious Rake, the heroine gives the hero The Cold Shoulder because she is embarrassed and ashamed that she had sex with him on their first meeting. In Lord Carew’s Bride, the hero gives his wife The Cold Shoulder when he believes she loves another man and even though this is not the case, his suspicions are not unreasonable.

The most difficult Cold Shoulder to pull off, in my opinion, is also one of the most common. This is the I-am-not-going-to-fall-in-love syndrome. In this scenario the hero or heroine decides that, for whatever reason, the other party is just too good – too handsome, too rich, too sophisticated – to fall in love with them. And so, as a defense, this person withdraws all affection. What makes this one hard to swallow is that it is usually used in the second part of the book, as a way to further the love story. The heroine for example, is usually sleeping with the hero and has had a convincing love scene. Then fear strikes – how could he love me? If I fall in love with him, I’ll get hurt.

This happened in Carolyn Jewel’s Lord Ruin, a book about an irresistibly handsome duke, Ruan, who falls in love with Anne, a woman whom he was forced to marry. Anne cannot believe that her husband could possibly love her, and she is supposedly afraid of falling in love with him. Throughout the second part of the story she is constantly planning to run away, in order to prevent herself from emotionally surrendering. But this part of the story is not convincing. For one thing it is obvious that Anne is already in love. Doesn’t she know this? I can’t believe that she doesn’t know she’s in love. How much can a person lie to herself? I asked a friend of mine this recently and she said “People lie to themselves constantly.” So I guess it’s a matter of opinion. But it still struck me as false. If you are trying to protect yourself from falling in love, it’s a pretty safe bet that the game’s over. You’re already in love. I think most women know this instinctively

Of course one reason for this device of I-will protect-myself-from-being-love is the 20th century phenomenon of the commitment phobic man. You know this guy. We’ve all met him. He’s the one who takes you out, wows you and makes you deliriously happy until the moment that he makes you desperately unhappy with the opening line “We have to talk.” It’s not long until you get the classic follow-up “Its not you. It’s me.” This is followed by a long tortuous explanation of some psychological scar that makes it necessary for him to lead a woman on until he is inexplicably tired of her. Most women over the age of 25 have had at least one run in with this guy, and have vowed, at all costs, to avoid another one like him. But even though most women dismiss 90% of what such a man says as nonsense, one thing he says sticks in their brains. That is that it’s not personal, its just something he does. That is most women feel that way until they run into the guy and his fiancé.

This, I suspect, is the underlying reason for the popularity of Greg Behrendt’s He’s Just Not that Into You – the book that explains that when a man breaks up with a woman its because (drum roll here) he doesn’t want to see her any more. Yup that’s the reason. According to Behrendt the commitment phobic man, more often than not, doesn’t really exist. Most men are only commitment phobic with women they aren’t in love with. When men are in love, commitment is not all that much of a problem.

Though Behrendt’s theory is probably good for the psychological health of women, it is death to the romance world. Romance novels need complicated reasons for men and women not to get together. They need cold shoulders, commitment phobia and dukes who won’t commit because their mothers were tramps.

No wonder the old romances were so much simpler. Rhett Butler never had trouble committing, nor did Mr. Darcy or Mr. Rochester. Yet all of these heroes suffered and also meted out, The Cold Shoulder. Rhett ravished Scarlett he got so frustrated with it. Mr. Darcy overcame it through good works. Mr. Rochester surprised Jane with a marriage proposal that swept her off her feet.

Think about it. When did you ever read about a commitment-phobe in a book published before 1960? Okay there is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, but it turns out Kerouac was gay, so that doesn’t really count. Men in Victorian novels, who are genuinely in love, never shirk from marriage, never. If anything they are proof positive of Behrendt’s theory that being “afraid of commitment,” is something men tell women to soften the blow of a breakup. It’s so much easier to say than, “I like you well enough but I don’t love you and I am never going to love you.” It’s ironic that men in older books never thought this one up but maybe that is because attraction between two people was often kept below the surface, allowing both to get out with their pride, when one party lost interest. Think about it. If a man paid a lot of attention to you at a couple of balls and then, slowly lost attention, you would be sad. But it would not require the same kind of conversation that you would need to have if he had been staying overnight, or even taking you out to dinner a few times a week for six weeks.

In fact even bad guys in old novels often push for commitment to a woman they don’t deserve. Old melodramas had villains who demanded that the heroine marry them. And of course the good guys could not wait to marry. Can you imagine David Copperfield giving Dora The Cold Shoulder because he can’t face commitment? Count Vronsky sweeps Anna Karenina off her feet. He can’t marry her because she is already married, but he does everything possible to make that happen, including offering to live abroad with her for the rest of his life.

For this reason older books seldom have one or the other partner withdraw affection in a way that is out of character. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett’s character is so well developed that we see why Rhett loves her and also, why he avoids telling her he loves her. She is shallow and spoiled. She uses every bit of power she has. Rhett has her number. Its not that he misunderstands her. It is that he understands her very well. At the end of the book Scarlett believes she loves Rhett and vows to get him back. Everyone wonders if Rhett will take her ; if her scheming will work. But another question is whether loving Rhett will change Scarlett enough to make his Cold Shoulder unnecessary. I have a feeling the answer is no. Scarlett is the kind of person who needs a good dose of The Cold Shoulder on a regular basis, just to keep her from destroying her own life and that of those around her.

But The Cold Shoulder in today’s romance novels is not the kind of thing one expects to see as a permanent factor in the relationship. Heroines with flaws as big as Scarlett’s almost never exist. Also, the conflict in a romance novel is expected to disappear with the HEA, because these people do not have the kinds of permanent character flaws that one sees in Scarlett and Rhett. In romance novels the commitment phobic rake becomes a completely committed husband. After years of philandering and either consorting with prostitutes or married women, he becomes a new man. He realizes how shallow and unsatisfying his old life was. He adores his children. He is insanely and permanently in love with his wife. The Cold Shoulder is no longer necessary.

Confessions of a Reviewing Author (Diana Ketterer)

They say confession is good for the soul, so let’s just get it out of the way: Forgive me, for I have sinned; I have been a traitor.

To whom? That’s not completely clear.

I was a reader for many, many years before joining AAR as a reviewer. That was the mindset I brought into the job, with the pet peeves and hot buttons and guilty pleasures that one can’t help but accumulate from reading hundreds of romance novels. I like weird and unconventional stories, which too often seem to get little attention. I also like the conventional plots and characters, when done well. I just want to get lost in a book and be so involved that the little things don¹t matter. Isn’t that really what every reader wants, to be swept away? Naturally I took these same beliefs along to my other job My first book came out this year. As a consequence, I’ve met a number of other authors. Publishing is a strange and mysterious business, especially to beginners like me. It’s good to have friends who understand. But as much as I love my new friends, I know some of them would never get over it if they knew I reviewed books. There is a conceit among some authors that reviewers are just wannabe writers who can’t get published themselves, and so take delight in criticizing those who do. Perhaps. It certainly salves the ego to think so when a review is harsh, and no doubt it’s true in a few cases. But that’s what you get for asking other people’s opinion of your work. Some will like it, some won’t, and you just have to hope that more people love it than hate it.

Every author (myself included) fantasizes that her book will be the one that gets all raves, bewitches every reviewer, and silences every critic. It’s hard not to; we wouldn’t have wasted our time writing it if we didn’t love the story and the characters. And writing a book can take anywhere from a few days to a few years to do. Often the only people who read it before publication are the author, her critique partner, and her editor. By the time the book is actually published, we crave feedback: it’s good, right? I’ve been thinking about that scene in chapter eight, was it too slow or just right? Did you laugh? Did you cry? Was my hero sexy? Was my heroine endearing? Did you like it? The first real answers to these questions generally come from reviewers.

Objectively, authors know a bad review means little. A book’s success depends far more on distribution, marketing, print run, and a hundred other things that happen completely separately from any reviews. Subjectively, though, a low grade can assume tragic dimensions. If you spend hours getting ready for a romantic evening, you want your date to say you look gorgeous, not that your hair is frizzy and that dress makes your hips look big. When someone takes the time to write a brutal critique of the book we poured our hearts into, it hurts, and when they post it on the Internet so other people can chime in and say “yes, I hated that book, too,” it hurts worse. Don’t they appreciate the risks I took, we authors wail to each other. Don’t they want to see something new and original? How could they be so mean? Because a book is such a personal creation, springing entirely from the (sometimes dark and scary) corners of our minds, it seems like criticism is meanness. It’s a matter of taste, we want to cry, and you obviously have none!

But books are not babies, and reviewers are not murderers. No reasonable reviewer picks up a book wanting to hate it; why would they? Who has time to read a bad book, then spend an hour writing a review of it? And does it really hurt an author in the end? Many authors get bad reviews and are still wildly successful. Other authors get great reviews and yet somehow aren’t as successful. Some of us are the big summer action movies, mocked by critics yet blockbuster smashes, and some of us are the indie art house flick that critics love but nobody sees. The point of getting reviews is not only to get nice quotes to put on your website, it’s to get the word out that your book is now available. That’s it. People won’t buy it if they don’t know it’s out there. In fact, a bad review can be good, if it’s so bad that readers pop up to say, hey, it wasn’t that awful, and then more readers pick it up to see what the fuss is all about. Unless the approbation in universal (which almost never happens), this will surely result in more sales and more fans for the author.

Of course I prefer writing good reviews. When a book sweeps you away, catches your imagination and refuses to let go, when you can’t fall asleep at night thinking about the story, that’s the best feeling a reader can have. Writing a DIK review is pure pleasure, because you’re sharing a fantastic story with thousands of other people. Even a B+ review that just misses DIK status is easy; the book was excellent, with just one or two things that bugged you. You rave about most of it, mention the things that bothered you, and enjoy the experience. The review of Julie Kenner’s The Givenchy Code wrote itself; it was a great story, and I could barely put it down. These are the books I love to find, and more than one friend of mine got a late-night email saying, you should read this! The better the book, the better I want my review to be. The Sinner by Will Davenport was such an excellent book, with such beautiful writing, it felt like an insult to turn in a review that didn’t at least try to do justice to it. I worked long and hard on that review, hoping I came close to expressing how strongly that book affected me.

Conversely, when a book just really does nothing for you, when you dislike the characters and think the plot is full of holes, writing the review is easy, but not a pleasure. Pointing out the flaws in a book isn’t fun, despite what some authors might think. If you didn’t like a book, you just want to move on after you finish, not write about it, even if you have fifteen (unflattering) things to say. The D reviews are the most difficult. It’s an awful feeling when you sense on page 50 that this is not going to be a book you love: there’s still 300 pages you have to read! You plot in your mind to email another reviewer and trade books with her, and then she’ll have to read it (maybe she’ll like it!). You write a few sentences, and then feel bad about them. That’s someone’s hard work, and you just called it ridiculous and silly. You put it off, and gaze longingly at other books sitting on your desk. You write another sentence, because you promised to review this book, no matter how much you regret it now. Now the review sounds really bad, almost an F. Is it an F? This is a terrible possibility to consider. An F? How bad does a book have to be to get an F? Can I really give another author an F? You pick up the book and re-read a little, trying to find something to convince you, one way or the other. Let’s see, this was good, and that was decent; it’s not an F. Line by tortured line, you finally come up with a review that expresses your feeling about the book. You cringe when you send it, vastly relieved that it’s done but wishing you’d never come across that book in the first place.

I think authors generally train ourselves to ignore really bad reviews. That reviewer just doesn’t get my voice, we tell each other, and that’s fine; it might well be true. Heaven knows, as a reviewer I’m willing to admit that, even if only to say that anyone would like it better than I did. Obviously, authors like good reviews a great deal more. Those are the ones we copy to our websites and send to our agents and editors and everyone on our mailing lists, humming happily all the while. See, they love it! It’s fabulous! And we love that reviewer, too!

But what about the middling reviews, those misbegotten Cs? Does anyone like those? Reviewers don’t. A C book is just what you think: totally average. If a friend asked about it, you would shrug your shoulders and say, it was OK. These reviews are a pain to write. You have to say something to explain why you gave it a C, but what? Some good things, some bad? Just say everything was blah? These are the reviews that leave reviewers staring into space, fingers motionless on the keyboard, thinking hard but coming up empty, wishing we could be writing about a DIK book instead. And drawing lines between a C, a C-, and C+ just adds to the dilemma. Did it just miss a recommendation? Or was it just barely tolerable? It’s no surprise that authors aren’t fond of these reviews, either. We all want to think we are special and glorious in our own way, not blah and indistinguishable from the pack. A B review will usually yield a respectable recommendation, even if buffered by some piddling little thing the reviewer had issues with. A C review gives nothing. No good quotes, no contentious message board discussion, nothing that really generates interest in your book. It’s like opening a gift and finding an empty box. On this, perhaps, authors and reviewers might agree: we’d both just rather pretend the review didn’t exist.

So why did I do it? As a long-time visitor to AAR, I knew the reviews weren’t puff pieces. Eventually I would get a book I disliked, and no one would stop me from pointing out every little wart and wrinkle. It also occurred to me that I could meet authors I’d reviewed, and that they might not like what I wrote about their books. I scrupulously avoided books written by people I knew, or was likely to meet (who belonged to my local RWA chapter, for instance). That’s only fair. But I know how helpful reviews can be to readers. Like many readers, my book habit would bankrupt me if I didn’t have some way of narrowing down the selection and choosing books more likely to be to my taste, and review sites like AAR are one of the most important tools for doing that. Even if a book gets a low grade, the review will still give me an idea of the story and if it contains anything I might like (that the reviewer hated) or dislike (that the reviewer enjoyed). That’s all you can really ask for, isn’t it? There’s no single reviewer I agree with all the time except me, and I can’t give my opinion until I’ve read the book.

I don’t feel like a traitor to authors everywhere. When I write my books and chat with my writing friends, I’m a writer. When I write a book review or gossip with my neighbor about the latest from Author X, I’m not a writer, I’m a reader. It’s a switch that flips. Any criticism is not based on thinking, “that’s not the way I would have written it,” because chance are I never would have written anything like that story in the first place; it’s not my imagination at work. When I’m a reader, I want the author to do all the work for me, all the plotting and character development and motivation and conflict and perfect pacing and good dialogue and sexy love scenes. Trust me, it’s work coming up with all those things and trying to make them fit together in a well-balanced story. That’s part of what makes authors so upset over a bad review, how hard they worked on the book. But from a reader’s point of view, all that matters is how well it works for them. When something in a book doesn’t work for me, I try to figure out why so I can explain it in my review, but not because I’m trying to impose my own voice or ideas on the book.

I’ve loved being a reviewer, and not just because of the free books. If not for reviewing, I would have never found the marvelous books of Diana Norman or re-discovered YA books, and hopefully my reviews have helped other people find great new books and authors, too. That’s really why I joined AAR. If you’re an author, I hope you’ve gotten good exposure and gained some readers from having your book reviewed here, whether you love your review or not. Console yourself that I am in the same boat, and have my share of bad press to pout over. If you’re a reader, I hope the reviews here are useful to you, whether you agree with the grades or not. Don’t be afraid to jump in and share your thoughts. The great thing (in my opinion) about AAR is that you’re free to do that. In the end, we all want the same thing: readers finding authors they love.

The Toughest Reviews to Write & Defend

Laurie Likes Books

AAR Reviews
Over Time

 Because I’m the person at AAR who handles advertising and money for advertising from authors, I’ve not written staff reviews for years. But I am the second-tier editor who finalizes each and every review before they go “live.” Because of that I remain keenly aware that certain reviews are more difficult to write – and defend – than others.

When I talk about reviews being difficult to write, that doesn’t necessarily mean the books are difficult to read. On the contrary, books earning grades of B+ are delightful to read, but often when we post B+ reviews, we are asked, “The reviewer didn’t seem to dislike anything about the book. Why didn’t it earn Desert Isle Keeper status?”

Part of the answer to that question lies in how a reviewer approaches a book. Some approach every book as though it were an A, then grade down accordingly. When I reviewed online, I certainly hoped every book would be a DIK read, but assumed each time I opened a book that it had a clean slate, mentally thought of it as average, and therefore assigned it a C in my mind, something to work up (or down) from. By the time I finished the book it was easy for me to determine what went in its favor and by how much, and what detracted (and by how much) from it. Was it so flawed in all respects that it was wallbanger material, among the absolute worst books I’d ever read? F’s are easy. Was it well beyond deadly dull, written badly, or otherwise loathsome but had one saving grace? If so, the book earned a D (unlike many of us at AAR, I’m not a real fan of the D- or D+; once I move below C-, to me a book is a D or an F). Was the book merely dull or was it incredibly, mind-numbingly dull? Merely dull – or easily forgettable – earned a book a C; C- reads were those I truly struggled to finish, not because they were awful, but because the level of boredom they inspired nearly equaled a coma.

Though I may have mentally assigned each book a grade of C when I sat down to read it, reading, grading, and/or writing about C books isn’t always easy. It may be easy to recognize an average book once the back cover is closed, but reading that book can be tough; it’s never fun to spend several hours of your life being bored to some degree. And writing about a C book can be difficult in that at times it’s difficult to pin down why the book wasn’t a better read.

Books earning a C+ from me were ones I wouldn’t go quite as far as to recommend, but they were still somewhat better than average. These books had, on balance, slightly more in their favor than against them, but not much. The balance (and what I judge all books by) might be struck by writing competence and style, plotting, premises, characterization, and the romance relationship. Books earning C+’s are also those that are quickly forgotten – I may actually have read through a C+ book quite easily and thought I liked it well enough, until I realized two hours later that I no longer remembered what I’d just finished. Regardless of the reason, the problem for me and C+ reviews is not so much in the grading, but in the reviewing itself.

C+ reads are often those I suspect others might like more than I did. It’s tough not to second-guess yourself as a reviewer, and invariably a bit of that creeps into reviews at this level. I experienced it myself as a reviewer, and see it all the time as an editor. C+ reviews too often tend to read like B- reviews, as though the reviewer can’t really bring him/herself to write about the book more harshly when it’s quite possible that many others will like it more than they themselves did. It becomes my job as an editor to turn on the intuition and determine whether it’s the grade or the review that the reviewer really believes. It may sound odd, but that’s not the hard part; when I ask the reviewer about changing the review or the grade, the usual response is that they were wavering anyway, or didn’t know how to say precisely what needed to be said. The truly hard part, though, is editing the review to reflect the actual grade. Sometimes it’s as simple as removing a few adjectives that are too enthusiastic for a C+; at other times it’s reworking either the opening or concluding paragraph so that the clues I’ve picked up throughout the rest of the review are reflected throughout. In those instances, it’s generally the conclusion that need help; it’s as though the reviewer wimped out ever-so-slightly at the very end.

As for those B+ reviews; my response is and always has been this: what separates the B+ from the DIK is an often undefinable something, a spark that strikes while reading or when finishing a book. It’s a level of excitement, a wish to re-read, or something that lets the reviewer know that a book is particularly special. If it’s not there, but the book is still an incredibly strong read, that’s a B+. If that giddiness hits – that’s a DIK. While it seems perfectly obvious to me, it isn’t for many readers, and the B+ review is often the review most difficult to defend.

Although C, C+, and B+ reviews presented my greatest challenges as a reviewer – and indeed, as an editor the C+ review seems troublesome for many a reviewer, to make this a more well-rounded discussion, here are the thoughts of AAR colleagues on reviews and the ones most difficult to write.

Cheryl SneedA B+ or DIK grade decision isn’t too traumatic for me. A DIK is a book that I can see rereading sometime down the road. A book can be very good, but if I don’t think I’ll reread it, it’s not a DIK.

To me, the hardest decision on grading is the difference between B-/C+ and C-/D+. It seems to me to be a huge leap between those letter grades. In the end, it’s a B- if I can see myself recommending the book to someone, C+ if not. There may still be good things about the book, but the difference between C- and D+ is the level of my dislike. If I’m bored or blase about the book, C-, if I actively dislike it, then D+.

Ellen MichelettiThe C range of grades is hardest for me to assign. A and F books are easy, they are what I call “gut books” since they both hit me in my gut (in opposite ways of course.) I find when I am reading an A book, I often get breathless with delight and can’t wait to re-read it. An F book is just the opposite. When I read an F book, I get mad. I get mad at its ineptitude, its stupid characters, its improbable plot or whatever. B books are good, but lack that certain something that lifts them into A territory. D books have problems, but don’t make me mad. But C books are just plain vanilla average and usually kind of blah. They don’t make me mad, they don’t delight me. Usually I don’t begrudge the time I spent reading C books, but with D and F ones I do.
Lynn SpencerFor me, the B- and C+ range is the hardest. When I give these grades, I’m giving them to books that have some redeeming features. The difference for me is that a B- book is flawed, but I would still suggest reading it while a C+ is a book that, while likable in places, is still ultimately forgettable.
Blythe BarnhillI find that it’s fairly rare in general for me to agonize about a grade. Usually I am pretty definite about how I feel about a book. I have, however, changed the grade while writing the review, and that’s happened several times. Usually I am changing the grade downward as I realize that I disliked the book more than I thought I did.If I do hem and haw at all, it tends to be mostly about C+/B- books. I think the reason is more or less what Lynn said: You are deciding whether you are really recommending a book (and will stand behind it) or basically telling people not to go out of their way. My word for C+ books is “pleasant,” which is more or less the same as damning them with faint praise.
Jeanne WFor me, grading a book is equivalent to judging a figure skating competition (which I do not watch anymore because of the rampant favoritism and judging scandals, but that’s another story). I think over the technical and artistic merits of a book. I’ve always wanted to do critiquing (my inner Ebert), and I still can’t believe an opportunity came up.B, B- and all C grades are slippery to assign. Generally, I think a B book is a really good effort, just not that zing to make it special as a A book. Neither does it have a real noteworthy element to reward it B+. A B- grade is real tough, and I have yet to assign that one yet. Books assigned with C are ordinary and/or average books due to any elements: storytelling, execution, appeal of the characters or their actions, or more than one failure of an element. The “+” means the author did one item of interest in an otherwise lackluster effort; the “-” usually means serious flaws.

One last thing. Not only does a book get points off in its grade for bad execution of an element, but also gets major points off in the degree of the bad execution of an element. For example, more points off for an incredibly stupid heroine vs. a mildly stupid heroine. That might really bring down a grade, such as from a B to a C or C-.

Ha NguyenI don’t sweat over giving a B+, C+, or C. These books range from immensely good to at least reasonably enjoyable and indicate that I had a more or less good time reading them. C is average, good and bad balance each other out, enjoyable parts are spoiled by not so good ones. C+ is above average, there’s more good than bad, and I give the book the benefit of the doubt until the very end, in the hope that the book might still become a recommendable read. B+ is easy. A very good book I only have minor quibbles with, although my reservations don’t allow me to gloss over them in the review.A very different beast is to decide between C- and D, I have the hardest time dealing with them! (my poor editor Cheryl nods her head ) Mostly I ask myself if I “merely” fell asleep over the book, or did I actually dislike it? When is a book so bad that I’m inclined to tell everyone not to bother (D+ downwards)?

Reading books for pleasure, I don’t finish books I don’t care for – no sense to throw precious reading time after the ill-spent money. If it’s a review book, however, I bemoan the wasted time and wallow in self-pity, since canceling the review altogether and not finishing the stinker is, unfortunately, not an option.

Sandy ColemanWhen I first started reviewing, grading was tougher. These days I rarely have any trouble deciding on a grade – though, like Blythe, I’ll sometimes change a grade after writing a review.Like Ellen, too, I don’t have any trouble recognizing A and F books. Generally, I am excited by an A and usually offended on behalf of all readers by an F.

Like most reviewers, I find the perfect A is an elusive thing that I’ve awarded only two or three times. Generally, my keepers are an A- because, after all, very few things in the world are perfect.

A B+ book lacks that certain something that pushes it into the keeper zone. A B is a solidly written book I happily recommend. A B- is just a bit less so.

A C is that oh-so-familiar middle spot on the Bell Curve. There’s nothing offensive or outright bad about it, it’s just simply average. A C+ is a book that’s just a teensy bit better than average and a C- just a little bit less.

A D is a book that fails, usually on more than one level – for instance, the story is hackneyed, the heroine TSTL, and/or the prose is clunky. Whether a book is a bit better or a bit less in these categories or others determines whether it’s a plus, minus, or flat D.

For me, an F is an outright failure on every level. Every single one. Story, characters, prose are all absolutely sub par – and, just to keep it interesting, often something outright offensive is added to really send a book solidly into the F zone. Like those elusive As, I’ve only awarded a few.

Sunny MacAllisterI usually have very little problem deciding whether a book is A, B, C, D, or F. A is outstanding, B is good, C is so-so, D is bad but not offensively bad, and F is just plain terrible.Once I arrive at the basic grade, I try to determine if the book has some major redeeming qualities that would boost it to + or if it has flaws that drag it down to -. For me, the difference between a B- and a C+ is in the overall merit first and then in the details, so that there is really much more difference between a B- and a C+ than between a C+ and a C-.
Anne MarbleMany people think that the hardest part of reviewing books must be the D and F reviews. Actually reading a D or F review is usually easy. Its reading a D or F book that’s hard. Once a book has enough wrong with it to qualify for a D or F grade, the hardest part is selecting what to mention and what to leave out. (That’s where the review editor comes in very handy.) DIK (Desert Island Keeper) reviews are a little harder, but not by much.In a weird way, D/F reviews and DIK reviews are similar. How can that be? Well, when you’ve read a book that really does not work for you, you can’t wait to broadcast the news to the world. And, when you read a book you loved, you want to give it a great review, because you want lots of people to read it and talk about it, You want the author to sell a lot of books and keep writing. Just as telling everybody to see that new movie you loved is easy, so writing a DIK can be (relatively) easy.

The hardest reviews to write are those books where the perfect grade seems to fall between the cracks What is the difference between a DIK review and a B+?

Here is my rule of thumb. If I finish a book and find myself deciding to keep it on that shelf near my window, I know it’s a DIK. Then I have to figure out how to tell the world (and the review editor) about it. If I loved the book but don’t have plans to bronze it, then it’s not quite a DIK , even if I don’t plan to trade it in right away. There are a few rare exceptions. When I read my first Julie Garwood (one of her earliest historicals), I wanted to keep it and hold it and call it George. But in a weird way, I felt guilty about that because I wanted other people to get a chance to read it. So I turned it into the UBS – and made plans to buy her next book new instead of used, so that I wouldn’t have to wait for a copy. Luckily, with the Internet making most books easy to find, I no longer feel guilty for keeping books I love. Hurray for the Internet!)

Beyond the gut level, what keeps that B+ from being a DIK? Usually its a combination of things. Maybe the book has a great hero but an annoying heroine, or maybe the book had a needless subplot. Or maybe it used a plot I loved, and while it made an enjoyable read, it didn’t make that plot as fresh as some of my favorites. And then there are the dreaded C and C+ reviews. Those might be the hardest to write – because often, there is plenty that’s right about the book, but not enough to make it a B or even a B-. What makes a book a C to begin with? It can be the book that was great, until one of the characters did something stupid or crass.. Even worse, it can be a book that simply didn’t engage me. I’d rather be angered than bored by a book.

Sometimes a C review is painful because the writing is great, and the story holds plenty of promise, but something in it just… breaks. But, while I often remember the C books as “coulda been a contenda” books, I mourn even more over those C- books, In those cases, the book wasn’t an outright D and something kept it from deserving an average grade. It can be a thin line that separates a book from C- to D+. A book based on a mistaken premise, such as Jasmine Cresswell’s the disappearance, where the author draws an unrecognizable Washington, DC where an environmentalist has no allies falls into the D category rather easily.

When you come right down to it, the more strongly you feel about a book the easier it is to write about the review. Its tough to feel strongly about a C book.

Leigh ThomasThe difference between a B- and a C+, and how to express that difference, is the hardest for me when it comes to grading. I give out a lot of both grades, and the line between them is often a thin one. Sometimes the difference is in how serious my reservations are. There are those C+’s that are good reads that have one or two flaws that prevent me from recommending it, the reservations being too great. So I have to weigh how heavy the flaws are before assigning the grade, largely because I know that a C+ is often considered a more negative grade than I believe it is. Sometimes these are books I think are certainly worth a look, even if I can’t definitively recommend someone spend their money on them, yet I know a C+ grade may keep some readers from giving it that look, which could be a shame.

On the other hand, there are plenty of C+ books that I found entertaining and enjoyable while they lasted, just not enough so that I would necessarily say, “Go buy this.” Those reviews are hard for the same reason B+’s sometimes are. Often AAR’s readers want a reason why a book is a B+ instead of an A-, expecting some flaw that kept it out of A range. In truth, there are times where there is no flaw that lowered the grade to a B+; it’s that the book didn’t rise up to the A. The same goes for some books that are C+’s. It’s not that they’re good books that were marked down, but decent books that didn’t rise up beyond that, which makes it difficult to point to this, that or the other as a reason it isn’t being given a B-. They’re fine, certainly better than just average, just nothing special.

Time to Post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions in addition to others that may have arisen out of your reading of the column:

What do you make of The Cold Shoulder? Is this a valid premise, or is it simply a sub-set of The Big Misunderstanding? And could it actually be, as Laurie surmises, something that exists in more romances than not?

After reading through all three segments on TCS in the column, can you share some particularly memorable scenes or books featuring either the start or the thaw of TCS, and why? Which were memorable in a good way, and why? Which were memorable in a bad sense, and why

Which is more effective – the physical or emotional Cold Shoulder?

Laurie, Anne, and Robin wrote about specific books, shared preferences, and gave reasons for why The Cold Shoulder may or may not work. For Laurie, TCS to prevent a character from feeling their love is a burden to the other is a favored use. Anne theorizes that a power struggle may lie at the bottom of TCS. Robin isn’t terribly impressed when TCS is used as a defense mechanism. What about you?

How new or old a phenomenon is The Cold Shoulder in romance?

Diana Ketterer shares her experiences of writing reviews while going through the publishing process. AAR has always guaranteed a bias-free atmosphere, which is why reviewers who are then published must wait three years to have their books reviewed (and only reviewers not in tenure at the same time as the author will be assigned to review their books). We’ve also always protected the identities of published authors who review not only from readers, but from other AAR staff, although reviewing authors are not uncommon in literary fiction. Is any or all of this necessary, or perhaps only necessary for romance?

Does it surprise you to discover that certain books are more difficult to grade than others, or that certain grades are harder to defend than others? Not all of you grade or rank books, but for those who do, are there instances when assigning a grade/ranking isn’t easy? Do you ever go back and change a grade/rank?

When you sit down with a book, do you mentally assign it a grade/ranking, and if so, do you start low and work up, start high and work down, or work from the middle?

What are your own definitions for the various grades we assign at AAR? When you peruse the table of new reviews, do you only click the links for B-‘s and up? When you see a D or F, do you make a beeline for it? Is a C+ for you “damning with faint praise,” as it is for Blythe? Are you, like many of AAR’s reviewers, a fan of the D+, D-, and/or F+, or, like Laurie, do you think that once a book is below a C-, pluses and minuses are superfluous?

Are you surprised by any of the percentages you saw in the chart of AAR Reviews Over Time?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books, Diana Ketterer, Anne Marble, & Robin Uncapher

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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