At the Back Fence Issue #214

January 2, 2006

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

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Every January I look back on my reading over the prior year. For last year’s ATBF my focus was mainly about the variety of books I read, although I did list my best reads for the year (along with detail about them on an adjunct page). This time out I’ll forego the statistics and simply share with you the best books I read in 2005. We’ll also take a look at Conversion Kits, something we’ve not done in ages, delving not only into those books you give others to get them into romance reading, but the books others have used on you to achieve similar results.

My Reading Year

2005 was an extremely interesting year for me in terms of reading. I read like a fiend throughout most of the year and finished 129 full-length books in addition to dozens and dozens of short stories. One of my two all-time favorites for the year was an inspirational novel, a first for me. Another first – not one, but two of the best books I read in 2005 were Romantic Suspense novels. All in all, I gave two books DIK status in 2005 and another eleven print books were good enough to mention here – they earned B+ grades.

My DIK’s:

fifthmountainThe Fifth Mountain
by Paulo Coelho (Inspirational/Historical Fiction, pub 1998)

Paulo Coelho fictionalizes the biblical story of Elijah in The Fifth Mountain. Elijah’s story is essentially that of a reluctant prophet, which perhaps resonated so strongly with me because I have long struggled over issues of faith. I have no problem with spirituality, it’s just that people have been killing in the name of God since time began. Coelho tackles that head on, and by the end of the book builds such a strong feeling of hope and rebirth for a devastated people that I found myself publicly crying with no ability to stop.

While in his early twenties, Jezebel, the wife of Israel’s King Ahab, commands Elijah’s death for his refusal to accept her gods. He is ordered through an angel of God to Akbar, where he is taken in by a widow who lives with her young son – even though they have little for themselves. She and her people worship the gods who live on the Fifth Mountain. When the woman’s son becomes ill and dies, Elijah is blamed and condemned by the High Priest, who orders he climb the Fifth Mountain, from which no man returns. If he manages to return, he will be beheaded. Elijah does return, and through God’s power, brings the boy back to life. The people of Akbar are in awe and soon Elijah is settling disputes and advising the governer…and incurring the wrath of the High Priest.

Elijah is conflicted between the love he feels for the widow and her son and his desire to return to Israel and restore the land to the worship of one true God. Meanwhile the High Priest, consumed by the fear of change and the jealousy of his possible loss of power, plays upon the fears and jealousies of those around him. The result is war.

Coelho’s storytelling is spare, and extremely effective. Nobody Elijah encounters is named in the story until very late, when names take on more meaning. Even the woman he loves is “the woman,” and her son is “the boy.” This should have created an impenetrable distance between reader and story, but instead actually increased the intimacy readers feel with Elijah. Most effective of all is a promise Elijah gives his woman, which the young boy cannot help but misunderstand. He demands that Elijah fulfill the promise in a literal sense. Although that seems an impossibility, Elijah finds a way to do so. When he does, it’s a magical, inspirational moment.

The Fifth Mountain was a perfect “A” read until the last half page of the book because that’s when the story, which had a universality to it throughout, narrowed down to deliver a specifically Christian message. And so my final grade was an “A-“. As a Jew this was an unnecessary intrusion, but I think those of any faith – indeed those professing to not believe in God at all – would find this an incredible read.

todieforTo Die For by Linda Howard (Contemporary Romance, pub 2005)

In her review of To Die For, Ellen Micheletti wrote, “it’s the lightest suspense novel I’ve ever read.” Ellen had it right, so right, in fact, that I don’t even consider this one Romantic Suspense. Instead it’s a very funny and sexy contemporary romance featuring Blair Mallory, a divorced woman who owns a fitness club, and Wyatt Bloodsworth, a cop and one-time flame who is determined to reignite their romance while at the same time protecting her and catching the killer.

As a general rule I dislike first-person narratives, but this book is an exception. Blair is a delightful mouthy narrator, and those attributes some might hold against her – she’s an ex-cheerleader, a clothes-horse, and drives an expensive car – all add up to a colorful personality. Any man in her life will need to be strong or she’ll run him over on a daily basis, and Wyatt stands up deliciously well to the challenge…even though first he must grovel for breaking it off with Blair two years earlier for seemingly no good reason.

Blair and Wyatt engage in a lusty battle of the sexes. Both are equals in this battle, and given that Wyatt is pure alpha, you can imagine how cagey Blair must be. There’s a fabulous scene when Blair takes an impromptu vacation without telling anyone. She rents a small cottage at the beach and falls asleep in the sun, only to wake up in Wyatt’s arms as he, in a very quiet and matter-of-fact fashion, carries her back to the cottage and they have their way with each other. It’s funny and it’s sexy…all at the same time, and well illustrates how perfectly matched these two are for each other.

For a fairly non-explicit book, this is a surprisingly sexy read. He knows she wants him…she knows she wants him…but Blair resists his convoluted logic on turning their lust into a long-term relationship for as long as she humanly can. It’s one thing to deny a physical attraction when walking around with wet panties, it’s another for a strong woman to accept a man strong enough to hold his own with you. It makes for frustrating fun, and had Howard written one of her patently explosive love scenes, this would have been a straight “A” for me. It’s not that the lack of such a scene left a noticeable gap, and I can see that adding a more explicit scene might have messed up the book’s tone, but even so, I missed the Howard hotness.

I’ve long said that Linda Howard’s heroes suck all the air out of the room from want of the women they love. Even in this, a romantic comedy, Wyatt’s desires are devastatingly attractive. But it is the equality of the match that makes this one of Howard’s best. Blair is no waif in need of rescue and each gives as good as they get. For all of you strong women out there who have at times been frustrated by the men we love for having the temerity to meet us in strength, this one is to die for.

When I corresponded with the author after reading this book, she mentioned something about Blair “demanding a sequel.” I can’t wait.

My B+’s:

hisnoblepromiseHis Noble Promise
by Adrienne Basso (European Historical Romance, pub 2000)

Richard Cameron, Earl of Mulgrave, is determined to prove to his nephew that Nicole Paget is a gold-digger, and at a masquerade ball, mistakes her older sister Anne for the beautiful young girl.

Anne is the adult in her family. Her parents are irresponsible and selfish shopaholics and so it fell to her to her to arrange marriages for her two older sisters. She did a magnificent job; both sisters are deeply in love with good men who love them in return. She is determined to ensure that the remainder of her siblings do equally as well in their lives in spite of their parents. As for herself, she has no plans to marry; the talented artist just wants the means to do her art.

When the two are found in a compromising position, Richard proposes, and Anne turns him down. While we’ve all read this basic story many times before, Basso does something I’ve rarely encountered in more than a decade of romance reading. In Richard Cameron she created the perfect alpha hero. He’s a leader, he’s strong, smart, and handsome, and he’s responsible and loving. There’s none of the alpha ass to him. I found him entirely scrumptious but never too-good-to-be-true. He sets his sights on Anne early on, and though he works it so that they do marry, he’s never manipulative. As for Anne, although she fights an inevitable marriage to Richard for a while, it never seemed as though she ought to have given in earlier. It initially seems as though she’s behaving like a stubborn bluestocking, but she has good reasons for holding back.

Basso also creates a secondary romance so that younger sister Nicole, who could easily have been written as simply vapid and spoiled, is instead a far more developed and interesting character. Watching this brash and beautiful young – and surprisingly courageous – woman reel in the man of her dreams was a delight. Historically accurate? Not by a long shot, but I didn’t care.

Another point in favor of His Noble Promise: the lack of a mystery sub-plot. It’s a character-driven relationship story through and through, which allows the author to create vivid personalities for her characters that are realistic rather than too-large-for-life. If you can dig up a copy of this one at the ubs, go for it. If not, read it as I did…it’s available as an e-book in many formats.

girlsinpantsGirls in Pants by Ann Brasheres (Young Adult Fiction, pub 2005)

The first two books in this series were among my favorite reads of 2004…could Ann Brasheres sustain that quality a third time out? She did, and Girls in Pants lived up to my expectations.

The pants themselves play a smaller role in this book than in the earlier stories, but Tibby, Carmen, Lena, and Bee each have memorable summers for the third year in a row. All three are now eighteen and about to go to college, and their emotional lives, as full as ups and downs as you’d expect of young women their age, are as interesting to adult women as they are to teens.

What I liked best about this book was that each of the four girls reaches a positive resolution to her “issue” by its end. Tibby, who thinks too much, has a crisis of confidence surrounding her career plans and also must deal with the fact that her once-geeky friend Brian is now a hottie with romantic designs on her. The moody Carmen faces up to her rude behavior as she cares for Lena’s depressed and angry grandmother, but what will the nice pre-med student she met at the hospital do when he finds out that she’s really a bitch? The outcome of this subplot is particularly sweet because even though all four girls go through a lot throughout this series, Carmen’s suffering and her rude behavior as a result of it was something about which I had great empathy.

Lena seems doomed to never be happy. After getting an eyeful of a nude model when he breaks into an art class she’s attending, her father refuses to pay for her to attend art school. How this all gets worked through is tremendously poignant and satisfying – and done without Lena, the beautiful girl, having a boyfriend. Indeed, it was her letting go of a past love that allows her to find a solution to her dilemma. As for Bree, she is forced to confront the boy who started her melt-down at the end of book one, leading to her severe identity crisis in book two. Bree’s story arc may seem familiar to romance readers, but I honestly didn’t know how it would all end up until I got there.

My emotional investment in these four girls became so strong that I couldn’t wait to get to the end to find out what happened to Bree. While the second book is more open-ended, particularly for Lena, Girls in Pants ends with all four having an equally hopeful start to the beginning of their adult lives. This has been a tremendously satisfying series, and taken as a whole, it really deserves DIK status. If anyone has a similar view, please consider writing a DIK review for us.

deriksbaneDerik’s Bane by MaryJanice Davidson (Shapeshifter Romance, pub 2005)

This may sound like an odd pronouncement, but reading Derik’s Bane gave me a new appreciation for werewolves. For the first time I had a sense of what it would be like to be both a wolf and a man, and that has shaped how I’ve read every werewolf story ever since. Given how many werewolves I read about in 2005, that’s saying something.

In Derik’s Bane, Davidson took the same werewolf clan she’d written about in previous Romantica short stories for the Secrets anthologies and mixed in the same sort of zany humor she is known for with her single title releases. The result is a far sexier mainstream romance than any others she’s written to date, but one that retains the rapid-fire dialogue and humor that brought her to prominence in 2004.

The fun starts early on and never lets up when Derik Gardner realizes he’s an alpha in a werewolf pack that already has its alpha (and alphette). When a half-werewolf friend forecasts the end of the earth at the hands of a reincarnated Morgan Le Fay, he’s ordered to “take care of her.”

Dr. Sarah Gunn has no idea who she is, but she has some odd powers that have helped her out at various times in her life. She and Derik end up on a cross-country road trip that showcases Derik in all his guy and werewolf glory. He doesn’t always behave as a hero ought, but he behaves as his character dictates, and to me that was more important. One reader friend of mine described him as a “big dopey dog.” He’s actually no dummy even if Sarah’s clearly the brains of this operation, but I found it rather amazing that an author could create such a believable non-human character.

MJD doesn’t do “deep and meaningful.” For some that’s a problem. It isn’t for me. She’s among the funniest writers I’ve ever come across – romance or not – and I love her for her odd-ball characters who make me laugh on a consistent basis.

mrrightnowMr. Right Now by Monica Jackson (Paranormal Romance, pub 2005)

Black attorney Luby Jones has a major chip on her shoulder. Although smart as a whip, she knows she was hired to her prestigious law firm because she’s black, and female. Her hateful bitch of a mother went looney tunes at age 27, and Luby’s birthday is coming up. Her grandmother tells her she can look forward to coming into her own “gifts” at that time. So when she meets her new neighbor, Jake Kosevo, and is hit with a proverbial thunderbolt of lust, she’s not happy about it. The timing couldn’t be worse – what if she goes nuts? – her attraction feels abnormal, and what’s worse, Jake’s white.

When Jake came of age, an inner magnetism developed so that everyone he meets falls into instant lust with him. While this would probably thrill most men, Jake wants somebody to actually take the time to get to know him, and to love him for who he is rather than how sexy he is. That somebody is Luby, and though she does her best to avoid Jake and fall in love with him, she does.

There’s a very innovative paranormal premise at the bottom of this storyline, but what sets the book apart is its point of view. Luby’s perspective of the world – of men and women and of blacks and whites – allows Jackson to write a very observational sort of humor that is totally in sync with Luby, who is a funny and angry person. That humor, the rapid-fire dialogue (reminiscent of none other than MJD), and some very sexy love scenes, really drew me in. I liked this book because it was genuine. Yes, folks, this paranormal romance seemed believable, and it seemed believable because the character of Luby was so well delineated.

Not only was Luby well written, I came to care about her friends. When I care about secondary characters in a story as short as this (200 pages), the author did a good job. As for Jake, while it takes a while for Luby to understand why he’s somewhat “off” and then to accept him, as a reader I was into him from the first moment.

There are naysayers who believe white readers cannot envision black heroines. Mr. Right Now is proof otherwise. I have a very visual imagination and, particularly during Luby and Jake’s love scenes, saw Luby clearly in my mind. It’s a pity that Kensington didn’t release this as a Brava (it was published under their AA imprint) because I think many romance readers who might otherwise have loved it will never even see it. That’s a shame.

veilofnightThe Veil of Night by Lydia Joyce (European Historical Romance, pub 2005)

In Lydia Joyce’s gothically-inspired debut, Lady Victoria Wakefield, 32 and on-the-shelf, agrees to live with Lord Raeburn for a week in order to erase her brother’s debt with the man. Lord Raeburn is as surprised as she is by her acceptance, and though she looks and acts the martinet, she intrigues him. He wants to figure her out, which is rather ironic given that he lives in the darkness and reveals nothing to anyone of his own life.

Victoria is not your typical historical heroine…she has a past, she likes sex, and she sees this week as likely her last opportunity for sexual intimacy after years of self-denial. She’s a worthy mental sparring partner for Raeburn, but she’s neither plucky nor spunky. Each hides in the shadows in their own way, and after their amazing first sexual encounter, they are further drawn to each other.

Like many a tortured romance hero before him, Raeburn is cutting when people get too close, and Victoria experiences this more than once. He has more success in getting Victoria to reveal herself than vice versa, which makes his power over her all the more noticeable, and proves to Victoria that she means little to him.

Of course she means the world to Raeburn, but for a man like him to let go of his pain and allow light in his life is not easy. In the end his secret – why he must live in darkness – is somewhat of a let down, but the freshness of the writing more than mitigates that flaw. There are some purple moments to be sure, but Victoria is a totally unique character and more than anything I came away with the view that Lydia Joyce shows talent on the level of Anne Stuart. I don’t make such comparisons lightly, and in this instance it’s quite a compliment.

Another benefit of The Veil of Night is this: it’s a cabin romance, which means it’s Victoria and Raeburn, alone together, for most of the book. Some might find that claustrophobic, but not me. This sort of isolation brings the characters front and center. I’ve always said that you can gauge the strength of a relationship by how well a couple does on vacation with only each other for company. Victoria and Raeburn do just fine.

deadasadoornailDead as a Doornail
by Charlaine Harris (Horror, pub 2005)

Every May for the past several years now, I’ve looked forward to a new installment from Charlaine Harris in her Sookie Stackhouse series of books about a cocktail waitress in Bon Temps, Louisiana. Sookie and her brother Jason were raised by their grandmother, who left Sookie her house when she died. Sookie is an attractive blond but has always been an outcast in her small town – not because she’s sorta white trash – but because she’s a telepath. She’s also got a wry sensibility that makes her first-person narrations a joy to read.

Sookie’s stories are packed with plot, but they’re not nearly as frenetic as Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. When Dead as a Doornail begins, Jason goes through his first change as a werepanther, Calvin, the local chief shape-shifter (who has feelings for Sookie) is shot, her friend Tara is mesmerized by a bad news vamp, and Sam, her shapeshifting boss (who has feelings for Sookie) is shot as well…right in front of Sookie. Sam’s leg was broken during the shooting and he sends Sookie to ask Eric – head of the Area 5 vampires (who has feelings for Sookie) – for a replacement bartender as a favor. Eric tries to figure out what happened between he and Sookie when he was cursed with amnesia during book four of the series, and also to get something going [again] with Sookie. He sends one of his vampire bartenders, to fill in for Sam.

While lots of “monsters” seem to have feelings for Sookie, there’s not the sort of rampant sexual activity going on in this series as there is in the LKH series. There is, however, a lot of focus on relationships as Sookie is drawn more and more into the world of shapeshifters, and, of course, her first love, vampire Bill, plays a part in this story as well.

What I most enjoy about this series is that the only “people” to unconditionally accept Sookie are “monsters.” Most of the “men” in her life, including Eric, Sam, and Bill (I’m not at all sure about Alcide), would die to protect her, heady stuff given her outsider status for most of her life.

It’s less interesting to me which “monster” Sookie ends up with than to follow her acceptance into these new worlds. The politics of shapeshifters and vampires isn’t dull for a moment, and that Sookie seems so basically average – save her telepathy – yet manages to keep herself alive when faced with all sorts of supernatural danger grounds the stories for me. I look forward to next May.

islandsIslands by Anne Rivers Siddons (Women’s Fiction, pub 2004)

Another first-person read, Anne Rivers Siddon’s Islands is narrated by Anny Butler, a woman who runs an agency devoted to the welfare of children. One rainy Saturday she takes a child with a club foot for a consultation with Dr. Lewis Aiken, an older, divorced man who is part of Charleston’s elite…and who often treats poor disabled children pro bono. Lewis falls in love with Anny, they marry, and she is brought into his tight-knit group of child friends, The Scrubs.

The story details the lives of Anny and Lewis and The Scrubs, often at the run-down beach house owned by a couple from the group, over a period of many, many years. The story meanders, allowing the reader to intimately know Anny and care what happens in her life, in Lewis’ life, and in the lives of their friends.

Siddons’ settings are characters of their own in her books, but in Islands she also creates a set of characters whose vibrancy make them seem quite real, even as the story takes some hard-to-believe turns as it progresses. Giving any actual plot would spoil things for the reader, but I can say this: the joy in this earthy book is simply in the reading about the characters and the place. While the story becomes quite disturbing toward the end, I recommend it to those among you who enjoyed Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons. If you take my recommendation, just be sure to keep a box of Kleenex handy.

Islands ranks with Outer Banks and Up Island as my favorites by Siddons.

dutifulrakeThe Dutiful Rake
by Elizabeth Rolls (European Historical Romance, pub 2004)

I wrote extensively about The Dutiful Rake for The Cold Shoulder segment of ATBF in November. In case you couldn’t tell by reading that earlier segment, I thought this was a wonderful book and, after also reading and enjoying the author’s His Lady Mistress, Elizabeth Rolls is now on my list of auto-buy authors. Any time I find myself re-reading passages over and over again in a book, I know I’ve found something special, and I look forward to being able to read Rolls for a long time into the future.

readyReady by Lucy Monroe (Romantic Suspense, pub 2005)

Author Lise Barton moved to Seattle from her home in Texas to protect her family from a stalker. Now it’s Thanksgiving and her sister-in-law has sent her brother Joshua to fetch her home for the holidays. The two met when their niece was christened, but Lise was scared off by her attraction to Joshua, who, as a mercenary, feared that his job was incompatible with a stable home life.

Joshua, who fears he may be the reason Lise doesn’t want to go home for the holidays, quickly deduces – when she nearly hits him over the head with a blunt instrument – that Lise is scared to death, and vows to protect her. He immediately takes charge of the situation and, with the help of his merc buddies, hies Lise to safety at her brother’s Texas ranch.

They return to Seattle after the holidays and set about ferreting out the stalker, all the while the attraction between them simmers until it eventually boils over. When the stalker hits Lise in an unexpected way, she ends up in the hospital, and they go to Plan B: traveling in secret to Joshua’s New England home while a decoy team drives across country to lead the stalker to where he can be taken down in a controlled environment.

This damsel-in-distress romantic suspense storyline isn’t anything new, but I dug it anyway, mostly because Joshua is strong and oh-so-confident in his abilities, but he’s never a macho ass. Indeed, he’s as lovable as Richard Cameron, the hero in Basso’s book, but Joshua is less sure than Richard about his ability to keep and sustain a relationship, which makes him a more vulnerable character. As for Lise, I loved how sexually aggressive she became as the story progressed. While it’s true that her previous asexuality is annoyingly similar to Amanda’s from The Real Deal (albeit for a different reason), once she finds she likes something, she goes at it with joyful abandon, even if she’s somewhat embarrassed that she likes it.

This isn’t romantic suspense with a complicated conspiracy plot; it’s simply a story of a man and woman falling in love while he tries to save her life. The balance between romance and suspense is heavily tilted toward romance, but no love scenes occur when bullets are buzzing by their heads. Readers, like me, who aren’t big on romantic suspense, should like this one.

itsinhiskissIt’s In His Kiss by Julia Quinn (European Historical Romance, pub 2005)

Hyacinth Bridgerton is in her fourth Season. Though attractive and well-liked, her intelligence and inability to suffer fools scares off most men. But not Gareth St. Clair, a well-known rake. Gareth’s father despises him because he’s the result of one of his mother’s affairs, and after Gareth’s older brother died, the older man set about to run his estates into the ground so that his “son” would have nothing to inherit but debt.

Hyacinth and Gareth are brought together by Lady Danbury, Gareth’s maternal grandmother, a cranky old woman whose biting wit has members of the ton quaking in their boots (or dancing shoes). But Hyacinth loves the old woman and reads to her every week, which gives the old lady the perfect opportunity to manipulate the situation and bring together two people she loves.

As a result of Lady Danbury’s machinations, the two find themselves actually looking forward to matching wits. And when Gareth gets his hands on his paternal grandmother’s Italian diary, isn’t it lucky that Hyacinth knows the language and can translate it for him? While as a plot device this isn’t exactly novel territory – nothing particularly about the story, or its characters is – yet it’s wonderful to read. That’s because of the writing. The dialogue sparkles, the chemistry sparks, and the story’s construction is so perfect that every page flew by and none seemed extraneous.

There’s a reason why so many books are said to be written in the “Julia Quinn style,” even if few are actually as good. Although she’s relatively young, Quinn’s writing is polished, assured, and incredibly witty, but not superficial. She is able to take a basic story and basic characters and make them sing. We’ve all read Lady Danbury before, but she does Lady Danbury better than just about anyone else (although Nonnie St. George comes to mind). As for Hyacinth, there’s an unexpected depth to her that helps explain why, if she’s not careful, she may end up the spinster version of Lady Danbury. Gareth is yummy – what isn’t there to love about a gorgeous man who’s also extremely witty? – and if he doesn’t shine quite as brightly as Hyacinth, that he is able to go toe to toe with her is enough for me.

blackiceaBlack Ice by Anne Stuart (Romantic Suspense, pub 2005)

It was after reading Black Ice that I came up with the Heroes on the Edge concept. Nobody does this sort of hero better than Stuart, and Bastien Touissant provides a textbook example. I first wrote about the Hero on the Edge in an April ATBF, and then summarized the plot and interviewed the author about the concept itself in a May column. This is a remarkable book with an unforgettable hero, and it’s the first conspiracy-based romantic suspense novel ever to become a yearly “best read” for me. This one came thisclose to DIK status, but the very “Anne Stuart essence” that came through so well in the book is what prevented its jump from a B+ to an A-. There’s a coldness in some of her work that totally fits the characters she writes, but that coldness can sometimes keep the reader at a distance.

E-Books of Note

In the last ATBF issue, I mentioned that many of the e-books I read in 2005 were electronic versions of print books (such as the Basso and Quinn books that made my yearly best list above). And more than once I’ve shared that 2005 was a “read-kinkathon” for me. So, in addition to the mainstream books I read on my eBookwise, I read a great deal of e-book Romantica, and was willing to experiment with more and more “out there” Romantica as I went. I’m actually not comfortable talking in detail about much of this reading in a public forum, but I will go as far as to share that apparently I’m one of those independently-minded feminists who enjoy reading about domination to some degree.

Click here for the best of the Romantica e-books I read in 2005, along with brief descriptions.

Conversion Kits

Every time my mother visits us in Dallas, she says something like: “All romances are alike.” This from a woman who never misses a book by Danielle Steel! Of course, she also reads J.D. Robb and the occasional Nora Roberts, but I haven’t the heart to tell her that she’s already reading romance novels. My sister, not nearly the reader my mother is, generally asks me to go book shopping whenever we’re together, and I’ve never failed to supply her with just the right romance, whether it’s by Nora Roberts, Barbara Samuel, or Suzanne Brockmann. And it wasn’t hard to match my husband up with one of SEP’s football books given that her style sometimes reminds me of Dan Jenkins, who wrote on of his favorite books – Semi-Tough.

I’ve never tried to convert my mother, but I’ve often converted friends and other family to romance simply by talking up a specific book or answering the question, “What’s good?” It’s true that I’ll take some general cues, but I don’t dissect their personality, educational level, or anything like that. My philosophy for conversion is to work most often from a series of “starter” romances. What’s a “starter” romance? Starter romances, in my view, are books that show the genre off well, but don’t do it in an envelope-pushing fashion. A starter romance will likely have characters we’ve read many times before, a plot we’ve all seen before (because to do otherwise seems too much like bait and switch), but it will be a particularly good example of that character or plot point…or time period. Nobody, after all, was as big a naysayer as I was when it came to looking down their nose at romance, and as the books that seduced me were fairly traditional, why not adhere to the same philosophy with others? Donna Simpson’s Lord St. Claire’s Angel was one of two trad Regencies that sent me into a multi-year trad Regency glom…it’s as good a trad to lend to a friend as anything else. Of course, my conversion kit is filled not just with second copies of darker romances like Simpson’s, I’ve also got a second copy of Nonnie St. George’s The Ideal Bride.

I update my conversion kit every year or so. I think it’s important to try and balance between old and new even if more of my favorites are among older titles. I don’t always succeed, but I think it’s too “bait and switchy” to share only books that may be many years old when today’s books read far differently. So some of the newer titles in my kit are merely “good” as opposed to “great” starter romances. Why give someone Linda Howard’s Mackenzie’s Mountain when not only is Linda Howard not writing series titles today, most series titles don’t read like they did in 1989? In some areas I can’t help but fall back on mostly older titles, but I do aim for balance. Here’s what’s currently available in my conversion kit:

Medieval Romances:

  • Catherine Archer’s Velvet Bond (1995 – my all-time favorite Medieval, and the epitome of the “starter” romance)
  • Julie Garwood’s The Secret (1992)
  • Madeline Hunter’s By Possession (2000 – not exactly a “starter” romance, but it’s a good match along with Morgan Llywleyn’s A Wind from Hastings for history lovers)
  • Judith McNaught’s A Kingdom of Dreams (1989 – technically this is a Renaissance Romance, but so what?)

Trad Regencies:

  • Donna Simpson’s Lord St. Claire’s Angel (1999)
  • Nonnie St. George’s The Ideal Bride (2003)
  • Catherine Blair’s A Family for Gillian (2001)
  • Mary Balogh’s The Ideal Wife (1991)

European Historicals:

  • Rexanne Becnel’s The Heartbreaker (2003)
  • Deborah Simmons’ The Vicar’s Daughter (1995)
  • Connie Brockway’s All Through the Night and My Dearest Enemy (1997 and 1998 – it never hurts to show versatility when trying to convince a friend that an author who writes romance is actually a “good” writer)

Frontier Romances:

Contemporary Romances:

  • Nora Roberts’ Born in Fire and Born in Ice (1994 and 1995)
  • Linda Howard’s To Die For (2005)
  • Erin McCarthy’s Mouth to Mouth (2005)

You’ll notice my conversion kit does not include Romantic Suspense, Series Romance, or all the books falling under the Paranormal umbrella. I don’t read enough Romantic Suspense to truly recommend it, but I do have an extra copy of Tara Janzen’s Crazy Hot, which I liked, from when it was originally supposed to have been released in 2004, so I may start a new section with it and that extra copy the publisher sent me of Suzanne Brockmann’s 2005 hardcover DIK.

Series romance is too idiosyncratic for me to include. Many of my favorite series titles are way over the top and filled with purple prose, and since series titles are what tend to bring on so many of the negative stereotypes to begin with, why perpetuate those stereotypes? And, as mentioned earlier, other favorites were written by authors no longer writing series books, so it’s not reflective of what’s going on today.

As for anything under the “Paranormal” rubric, my failures to convince my husband of Anne Rice’s brilliance with her initial three vampire novels suggests I’m not a good saleswoman in that arena. But I recently read and enjoyed an upcoming Amanda Ashley vampire romance that is a perfect “starter” – Desire After Dark. And when one of my sisters-in-law called a few months ago because her Oprah-style book club needed a break and asked for something “trashy” to read, I successfully recommended Undead and Unwed (because it had a modern, Chick Lit feel, would be fun for a group of women to laugh over, and had minimal sex), so perhaps I’ll be adding a new group of books to my conversion kit. After her book club met, btw, I felt like a drug dealer giving somebody a fix when Susie called to ask, almost furtively, for further recommendations.

June 1, 2003 ATBF
Adjunct page for the June 1, 2003 ATBF
May 15, 2003 ATBF
May 1, 2003 ATBF
April 15, 2000 ATBF
July 15, 1999 LN&V
May 4, 1997 LN&V
Conversion Kits (1997 – 1999)

As you can see from the listing on your right, we’ve been talking about the idea of conversion kits for years now at AAR, going as far back as 1997. Now seems an appropriate time to talk about them again…perhaps a New Year’s resolution for some of you may be to convert somebody to romance!

So I asked readers on our Potpourri Message Board to share their personal conversion kits. The concept was expanded so that they could also share how they themselves were converted.

My own story goes like this: after trying a few Jennifer Wilde-esque romances in college, I decided they weren’t for me…they were for white-trash women who couldn’t get a date. So sue me – I was a snob. Then, in 1993, while buying some books to take on the first weekend away from our daughter (born in 1992), I happened to spy Catherine Coulter’s The Sherbrooke Bride, and bought it on a whim. Needless to say I bought several more Coulter romances before we returned home at the end of the weekend, and an obsession was born.

Here’s what you all shared.

Ellen wrote that she was one of those “look at those covers…romance = badly-written soft-porn” folks, never realizing that the Georgette Heyer books she’d read in high school were part of the romance family tree vis a vis the trad Regency. A few years ago she saw Edith Layton’s The Duke’s Wager at a UBS and gave it a try. She loved it, and has been reading romance ever since, adding that “finding AAR has educated my romance tastes significantly.” Susan too failed to make the connection between her beloved Heyer novels and the modern romance. Then a friend asked her to check out a review she’d written on Amazon for an Amanda Quick book. After reading the review, she read the book, then checked out Quick’s backlist from the library. After that she went back to her friend for recommendations, but was very cautious in her reading…until she found AAR, the only romances she read were those recommended by that friend. Lee, on the other hand, was always open to any and everything readable, and picked up a series title from a stack of Harlequins left at her YMCA one day. The next day she returned for the rest of them, although she’s since moved on to single title contemporaries.

Maggie was introduced to series romance when her cousin lent her Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe in her junior high school days. She “fell instantly in love and glommed” them at an “alarming rate.” Later she tried Danielle Steel and decided that contemporaries weren’t for her…until a friend gave her Nora Roberts’ Born in Ice. The next day, she recalls, she’d ordered a whole set of Roberts’ romances from Amazon.

Lynda recalls that her family was “contemptuous” of romance, and though she wanted to read a couple of teen romances in the school library way back in the early 1960s, she couldn’t work up “the nerve to sign them out.” In her house, as was likely the case in many houses across America before paperbacks were anything but pulp fiction, the only acceptable fiction was of the literary variety. Lynda remembers devouring Jane Eyre in the eighth grade, and when she grew up she finally bought some gothic romances and a smattering of Barbara Cartland and Georgette Heyer. When The Flame and the Flower was published in 1972, she read it perhaps “four times in a week” even if Brandon was over the top and Heather “was a simp,” then waited for Woodiwiss’ next book. By the time The Wolf and the Dove was released, Lynda was mostly reading romance, although she “yearned for the male point of view” and “wondered why there were no funny romances.” She adds:

I do not have even one friend with whom I can discuss these books – they are all dismissive and scornful of them. Of course, they profess never having read them; after all, who would want to read such trash? So, my book club continues to read generally depressing novels about psychologically troubled families and individuals–you know, the typical “good” literature. To my amazement, another woman in the group got us to read The Other Bolyn Girl by Gregory, which I liked (I love Eng. history), but did not love. Our group was divided – about half liked its story and color, but the other half sniffed that the characterization was thin. I wish I convert them, but doubt that will happen. On second thought, I know that one woman does read romances, but she’s in the closet. And another did like Morning Glory, so I think she may sneak too. But they remain silent. It’s sad, isn’t it? However, when I read of people’s 65 year old father reading them, there’s hope, isn’t there? You never know. . .pigs do fly occasionally.

Tee and EC were both converted through LaVyrle Spencer’s Morning Glory. Tee remembers at first turning down her co-worker’s offer of the book, but when gently nudged, she read it and couldn’t stop, not even while on a quick vacation that weekend. She recalls “sitting on the bed reading while they were chatting, not wanting to pull myself out of the story at a very ‘critical’ point.” As for EC, she passed her newfound love of Morning Glory to others, thereby converting more readers to romance through Spencer’s WW II Americana tale.

Yuri was stuck in a ski lodge with bad snow and ran out of books to read. She found an old Robyn Donald (a Harlequin Presents, perhaps?) and was hooked. She converted her mom as well by the end of the trip, although mom was a harder sell. Like Yuri, Xina was on vacation – at a summer cabin rather than a ski lodge – when she too ran out of reading material. She went to a small local bookstore and asked for something to read “along the lines of James Harriot.” She was pointed toward Outlander, but as it was in the romance section, she demurred, only to return a few days later and bought it. She immediately whipped through the entire series “and was hooked from then on.” Cheri, on the other hand, was converted by the women in her family, who all read romances. When she came home during college breaks in the early 90s, she’d go back to school with bags of romances from them.

Suzanna always read historical fiction, and gothic and classic romances by Holt and Heyer, but was converted to “twirly titles” – those historicals you can see from across the room “because of the lettering style” only after years of reading SF/F. She borrowed MJP’s One Perfect Rose while visiting her sister in Australia, which led her to other books, and eventually AAR. She recalls, “I went on holiday reading SF/fantasy and drinking coffee, and I came back reading romances and drinking tea. I haven’t looked back since.”

Many a dedicated romance reader has been frustrated by the “No, it’s not…Yes, it is” syndrome that I described earlier when reminiscing about the conversations I’ve had with my mom. All of Kristie’s sisters, for instance, read the Stephanie Plum books, but one of them refuses to believe they might be romances. And though many of her friends read Jennifer Crusie, Yuri says that, to a one, none of them believe her books are romances. Maggie’s experienced that in a different way: her group of friends will not believe anything is a romance unless it’s an historical. They read and enjoy Nora Roberts and Suzanne Brockmann, but refused to consider reading Mary Balogh or Jo Beverley.

When I put together my conversion kit, I was conscious of each book’s sensuality rating, which is why, even if trad Regencies are no more, they continue to be represented in my kit. It’s not at all that I’m ashamed of books with more explicit love scenes, but it’s a particular joy to share a book that provides a strong yet subtle sensuality because it showcases the writer’s talent for nuance. Mark, on the other hand, not long ago picked out a half-dozen books to show someone what he liked about romance. Three had sex scenes and three didn’t, and were offered in just that fashion – ie, “do you want to choose among the ones with sex?”

Most readers tend to tailor the books they share. JMC recently lent extra copies of Marian Keyes’ Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, Sharon Kay Penman’s Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, The Time Traveler’s Wife, some J.D. Robb and Nora Roberts books, and a couple of older Linda Howard books to four different people, based on their interests. Sherry hasn’t necessarily converted a friend, but she’s “done some successful matching with individual books, one at a time.” To her funny, earthy, and “practical-minded” friend, she lent Jennifer Crusie and Emma Holly’s Beyond Innocence and may also recommend the same Monica Jackson title I liked so well in 2005. Her quiet and thoughtful friend who loves to visit historical houses and aspires to write loved Flowers from the Storm, and another friend, who once wrote a “literary historical novel on Queen Boudicca,” was surprised to find that Judith Ivory’s Black Silk was as well-written as it was.

AAR’s Lea, as well as LFL, also have had luck with Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. Lea’s conversion kit also includes Connie Brockway’s As You Desire, Jillian Hunter’s Indiscretion, Annette Reynolds’ Remember the Time, and Pride and Prejudice because if it weren’t for Austen’s classic, Lea wouldn’t be reading romance today. And LFL finds that “when people with mainstream fiction, literary fiction, or women’s fiction reading backgrounds express an interest in romance and a willingness to read one,” she gives them either FFTS or Patricia Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish.

Mentioned most often by readers were LaVyrle Spencer, Laura Kinsale, and Jennifer Crusie. Jorie finds that Welcome to Temptation, with its “murder mystery and women fictionish sections,” works well on those who don’t read romance, and although The Shadow and the Star – with its “ninja-trained hero in Victorian Hawaii” – is her personal favorite, the “world-building and conflict in FFTS would probably be more accessible.”

Not long ago Karen gave her best friend Ain’t She Sweet? to try because her friend is “a lot like Sugar Beth so I thought she would enjoy reading about herself.” If that particular Susan Elizabeth Phillips title doesn’t work, Karen plans to give her It Had To Be You, also by SEP, but notes that many times, “you only have one shot to give them a book that will wow them and turn them on to the genre.”

While I’ve had luck converting readers with historical romances, as have some of our readers, there is a sizeable group of readers who will not read books unless they have contemporary settings. It’s never occurred to me to recommend an historical romance to my sister, nor could I have imagined suggesting to my s-i-l’s book group any romance that wasn’t contemporary. Covers may play a part in this – convincing readers that if a book has a cover of a man and/or women in historical garb, it isn’t necessarily the bodice-ripper they expect it to be – but sensibility is more likely the key, which is why Jorie, Yuli, and I have all had similar experiences with people who will not believe that the Jennifer Crusie or Nora Roberts books they love are actually romances.

Before signing off, I’d like to tackle one more aspect of the conversion kit idea. Shortly after writing about it for the very first time back in 1997, I received this very angry comment from a reader: “I was really annoyed by your idea of conversion kits. That’s rather an insult to individual taste and personal preference. Personal preference should be respected. You’re doing a great disservice by trying to force romance fiction down people’s throats. Why not engage the strapaddo and the thumbscrews? It’s the same idea.”

I believe that individual misunderstood the concept of the conversion kit, which in no way is meant to force anybody to read anything. But perhaps there’s an underlying reason behind the conversion kit that creates this sort of animosity. Do we want to get others to read romance because we know they are missing truly wonderful books, or in some way do we want others to read romance so that they’ll stop picking on us because we read it? In other words, do we want others to read romance as a reactive and defensive measure? Who cares, after all, what other people read as long as we enjoy what we’re reading?

What’s been your experience?

Time To Post to the At the Back Fence Message Board:

Because each new year we devote quite a bit of column space to reflecting on the previous year’s best reads, we don’t want to duplicate ourselves and bore you. So, with each look back at the past year until we post the results in our annual reader poll (polling begins January 16th), we’ll be coming at it in a different way. This time around the focus will be on reading you did last year of books published prior to last year, books read outside the genre, and over-all breakdowns of your reading. That in addition to discussion on conversion kits.

Let’s get started.

On 2005 reading:

  • How many books did you read in 2005?
  • What percentage of the books you read were published in 2005?
  • What percentage of the books you read were romances? Other books?
  • Did you set a goal and meet it? Did you exceed it or fall below it?
  • Do you keep track of what you read? If so, how do you catalog your reads? Did you recently start or have you been doing so for some time? If not, do you plan to in the future?
  • What were your favorite non-romances and favorite pre-2004 romances?
  • Did you leave any authors behind in 2005?
  • Which were your biggest gloms of the year?

On conversion kits:

  • Have you ever converted a non-romance reader? If yes, how did you accomplish this, what books did you use?
  • For what reason(s) do you believe those of us who have tried to convert others have done so?
  • Is it a better idea to convert a reader using non-traditional or traditional romance? If you use non-traditional romance, does it “ease” a reader in, or is it bait and switch?
  • If you were to devise a conversion kit, what books would you put in it?

And for those of you who read Romantica – do you compare and judge it more in your mind with straight Romance or straight Erotica? And, if neither, just how do you do it? Also, feel free to comment on the e-book Romantica that made my list.

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh
Laurie Likes Books

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