At the Back Fence Issue #221

April 10, 2006

After conducting a user survey earlier this year, we instituted some big changes to the At the Back Fence column. Those changes include a weekly column rather than one every two weeks, each to be written in round-robin fashion by ATBF’s co-columnists, and to add each month a column written by someone else (be it an AAR staffer, an author, a blogger, or “plain old” reader). This is the first of those “someone else” columns, courtesy of AAR’s Lea Hensley.

From the Desk of Lea Hensley:

The greater the number of romances I read, the greater is my need to re-read a book now and then. After years of searching out favorite authors and reading all they have to offer, the hunt for new ones to add to the mix is more challenging than ever and chances to bomb on my choice of reading material has risen considerably. Oh for the days when I discovered a Susan Elizabeth Phillips or a Lisa Kleypas on a fairly regular basis, delightfully devouring their reliable backlists to feed my insatiable need for that next DIK. So I guess it only natural when choices seem limited for my next read that I remember some of my old favorites and re-reading those becomes the next logical step. And since I don’t re-read a large percentage of books, my expectations are high because if I deem a book good enough to re-read, it better deliver.

shopaaradBooks You Didn’t Like…And Now You Do

I know it sounds a little desperate when looking for that next book to read, but what about those books you didn’t like the first time around – are they ever candidates for a re-read? I’m talking about those you had a difficult time finishing, ones you disliked or even hated, and those that touched one or more of your hot spots in such a way that made it intolerable to finish. Now most books I hated, I truly did and can’t even consider the thought of tackling one again – talk about anguish. But something that feels a little like indignation creeps into me when I see one of those books I disliked so intensely discussed favorably on message boards, recommended by friends, or given a good grade by a reviewer I know shares my good taste. It makes one begin to wonder – was I in a strange mood? How did I see that book so differently? And there have even been a few times I have wondered (after a very long while), what if I tried it again?

A personal experience that comes immediately to mind is the infamous and controversial Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught. The sophisticated, mature Duke of Claymore, Clayton Westmoreland, decides he wants young Whitney Stone as his wife and contracts for her hand in marriage without her knowledge and she is determined to make him miserable for it. I was on a Judith McNaught high when I first read the original version of Whitney, My Love but rather intolerant of young, spoiled, mouthy heroines and found my temper rising with each chapter. I kept assuring myself that McNaught would pull this off but when I reached the riding crop scene the book flew out of my hands and hit the wall. My anger at having to endure such an immature heroine was such that the issue of Clayton spanking Whitney faded totally into the background. Yeah, I know Clayton had some control issues, but really, I wondered more if he was crazy for wanting this brat. I somehow forced myself to finish the book, suffering more aggravation along the way, before I wrote myself a scathing review, grading it an F (only my love for McNaught kept it from an F-) and threw it in the trash – it did not even qualify for the give away stack.

After consigning Whitney, My Love to the trash bin, I was especially sensitive to the numerous positive comments about it that seemed to be everywhere. Readers I knew had similar reading tastes to mine often listed it as a favorite on message boards here at AAR and even AAR managing editor Blythe Barnhill remembered it fondly. What had I missed? But most telling was my own “Books Read” list I keep for a quick glance at the books I have read as well as my grade for each. There staring at me from my Judith McNaught section were all her historicals, each graded an A with the exception of Whitney, My Love sitting alone at an F. Had I been in some sort of really bad mood? After two years of reading those messages and wondering about it all, I challenged myself to re-read it, bracing myself for a brat of a heroine and intent on immersing myself in McNaught’s overall delivery of the story rather than the hot spots it generated and you know what? I’m only a little embarrassed to share it now carries an A grade as well. I now understand that my change in expectations as well as being forewarned of certain plot elements were responsible for this drastic change.

I can’t recall another book garnering such a drastic upward grade change but can recall a few whose grade increased significantly upon re-reading. Two similar contemporary romances, Rachel Gibson’s Simply Irresistible and Jennifer Crusie’s Manhunting, were the first romances I read with trendy, humorous writing and snappy dialogue that allowed heroines to be outrageous as well as ridiculous. Both failed to impress me and received C- grades but as I exposed myself more of this type of writing and gradually circled back to Gibson’s See Jane Score and Cruisie’s Welcome To Temptation, I developed a whole new appreciation for these authors’ writing styles and eagerly pursued their backlists, re-reading both Simply Irresistible and Manhunting with grade results of B+ for both. Manhunting had also suffered the first time around because of its 256 pages – at the time I hardly ever invested my time in anything under 350 pages and when looking back realize I lowered the grade of a number of great books (including Linda Howard’s series titles) because of their length – a prejudice I have gotten over although I still prefer that longer book.

Another reason I have seen upward grade changes (and it has been responsible for some downward changes as well) is my growing appreciation for an assertive heroine who doesn’t stand for mistreatment. Since some of my earlier favorites were either medieval or Viking settings, I was conditioned to mild mistreatment of the heroine and didn’t think too much about it as long as the hero got his comeuppance and they lived HEA – actually not much in expectations now that I think about it. When I first read Fires of Winter by Johanna Lindsey, I loved its Viking setting but had no tolerance for long separations. Garrick Haardrad, the son of a Viking chief, receives Lady Brianna as spoils of war from his father after taking her captive in a raid. Tumultuous is a tame description of the relationship that follows and ultimately results in a long separation that kept getting longer at Brianna’s insistence. Although Garrick’s foolish actions caused the separation and he deserved her disdain, I became aggravated, lost interest, and grumpily skimmed it to the end. Two years later as I re-read several of Lindsey’s Viking and medieval books I now consider guilty pleasures, I remembered the original premise of Fires of Winter most clearly of all and decided to give it another try. This time I applauded Brianna’s strength and her ability to stand so strongly in a Viking world and the separation was not even a concern. This one shot from a C- to solid A. Yeah, it is so politically incorrect and one of my biggest guilty pleasures.

Miscasting is another reason for an upgrade – one that may require a little explanation. Being the visual person that I am, I must have a picture in my mind of the hero and heroine within pages of their introduction. If those visualizations don’t work for me, the book begins with negative footing that is no fault of the author. This happens more than I want to admit but one particular example that comes immediately to mind is Lady Be Good by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Lady Emma Wells is looking for a scandal in the good old U.S.A. to avoid an unwanted marriage to a duke, no less. Right out of the gate, I cast the image of Lady Emma’s character, I thought appropriately, as a lesser known actress I had unfortunately seen play a particularly wicked role in a movie only weeks before. The actress’s portrayal must have made more of an impact than I realized because I never could get her cynical, unhappy face out of my mind and even as I closed the book, I wondered how much the image I had fought the entire book had poisoned my final opinion. Of course, Lady Be Good is another one of those perpetual favorites you see out there and when I finally forced myself to read it again, desperate for another SEP re-read, the grade increased from a C to an A. Wiping those negative /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages out of my head is one of the most important things for me to do on any re-read.

AAR’s Rachel Potter remembered her initial reaction to Laura Kinsale’s The Dream Hunter and later re-read which increased the grade from a D to a B+:

“Honestly, I think what happened was that I read it in the first couple on months I started reading romance again after about a 15 year break. I read several of my all-time faves during that period, including The Windflower, and I think I thought that trend of hit-it-out-of-the-park-with-every-book would continue. In that context, the book’s desert scenes hit me wrong. I just wasn’t interested in reading that setting or about such a damaged heroine. Then I read about 500 more romance novels including several Kinsale’s I just adored and decided to give it another try. The intervening 500 books had given me an appreciation for the mediocrity of much of what is out there. Compared to those books, this one really shined. And having read so many totally independent, proto-feminist heroines with no depth to them, I was in the right frame of mind to appreciate Xenia’s flaws and multi-dimensionality this time around. Xenia was a frustrating heroine, yes, but at least she was interesting. Also I found myself empathizing with her much more as those same intervening years had brought me a much closer awareness of mental illness and what it can do to families. Rather than be angry at her, I ached for her and wanted to help her.”

Ellen Micheletti, AAR’s senior editor, offered her thoughts on a particular re-read that garnered more favor:

“I didn’t like Jude Deveraux’s A Knight In Shining Armor at all on first read. I thought that Dougless was a stupid name and that she was such a doormat as to be laughable – I didn’t pity her. But I read so many reviews from readers who loved it that I gave it another chance and didn’t focus on Dougless when I re-read it. I liked it. I thought it was very well constructed, the story engrossed me, and I loved Nicholas. I appreciated that Deveraux didn’t take the easy way out but managed a happy ending anyway. I tried a couple of other Deveraux books, but this is the only one of hers I like.”

Another of AAR’s team, Teresa Galloway, reflected on a one book that she had the courage to re-read after a bad first experience:

“When I first got back into reading romances in the early nineties, I read a lot of recommendations for Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Honey Moon (probably on AAR). So I bought it, read it and seriously disliked it. At that point, I was expecting a standard linear story of one man, one woman and the hijinks that ensue within a relatively short period of time leading to their HEA. SEP’s story arc was totally different–one woman and the two great loves of her life over many, many years. I just didn’t know what to make of it, and I was still unaware of how many really truly bad books were out there. At the time I didn’t appreciate the book’s deviation from the formulaic nature of other more predictable romances. Now I feel totally differently and look back on that book with much more fondness and appreciation for the layers of storytelling and depth of character development that Honey goes through in the course of the novel.”

AAR reviewer, Jeanne W. tends to read AAR DIKs because she wants to read the best , but one to which she took an immediate dislike was The Last Rogue by Deborah Simmons:

“I hated it, which shocked me because I usually agree with Ellen’s (the reviewer) opinions. I liked Deborah Simmons books in general, so The Last Rogue was the inexplicable odd man out. My initial sympathy for Jane was practically wiped out by her unpleasantness towards Raleigh. I saw her as willfully belligerent throughout the book and her later transformation did not convince me she became a more likeable character. This book was a wallbanger for me and a personal grade of D. Two years later, I was enjoying my periodic re-read of The Gentleman Thief and I picked up The Last Rogue for a back to back series read, more slowly this time, and appreciated the depth of Jane’s difficult character who feels lacking when compared to her more beautiful older sister. She knows she’s plain and therefore not happy to be trapped into a marriage with Raleigh, a very handsome man physically. She doesn’t believe his attraction to her is real and belligerently pushes him away because she doesn’t want to be the subject of his cruel games. Jane’s transformation was engrossing and rewarding the second time around and I changed by grade from D to B.”

Books You Loved…And Now You Don’t

As an avid romance reader for about five years now, I still retain much of the original glow I had in my first days of romance reading but I am learning more about the alternating high and low periods that seem to be the curse of romance reading and realizing, as noted earlier, that my reading tastes are gradually shifting as well. I now find that my list of awesome books I loved and deemed keepers to read again may not be as reliable as I once thought and sometimes wonder when re-reading one of these old favorites why I found it so delightful the first time around. What was I thinking? Often the plot lines appear overused or trivial, the to-die-for hero is too demanding, the sweet heroine a little too whiney, and I just don’t find the elements that so entranced me previously. Although I think most of us chalk this disillusionment of a former favorite up to a change in reading tastes, with which I heartily concur, I also wonder about the burden I have put on that guaranteed old favorite of mine when I pick it up. More times than not I am already in a reading slump and yearning for those feelings only a great romance can inspire. Why not rely on one of these older personal DIKs to once again sweep me away and pull me out of my reading blues? Unfortunately this DIK plan doesn’t work well if I am currently dissatisfied with most of the books I am reading so should I really expect one of my old favorites to pull me out of my slump or offer reprieve? What pressure am I placing on my old friend to be wonderful for me when nothing else is wonderful at the moment?

When I reflect on my evolving reading preferences, I think of some of those old bodice rippers and forced seduction scenarios I had little problem reading early on. I think my initial fascination was largely due to the fact that such situations were actually in book form and somewhat daring to read. One of my favorites from those beginning days was Jennifer Blake’s Royal Seduction, which featured a forced seduction (rape) scene – or more accurately from the hero’s point of view, just desserts for a lowdown excuse for a woman who helped kill his brother and was a trollop anyway. Now I pick up that book and think “Whaaatttt?” Clearly this storyline falls short of romance as I now understand it and such a rash hero no longer is worthy of much respect. Easily my A grade dipped to a C but no further for sentimental reasons.

Devil’s Bride by Stephanie Laurens is another book that represents a significant change in my reading tastes. I don’t think I am alone when I categorize it as an original for its day. But the thing that made me swoon a bit and most influenced my positive grade was Devil’s determination to have Honoria as his wife early in the book regardless of what she wants because she is his. Now that I have read that particular tale so many different times, in so many different ways, re-reading Devil’s Bride was a disappointment and proved too simplistic and formulaic now for my tastes (I know that seems unfair). The grade plummeted from an A to a C as well.

Mary Balogh’s More Than a Mistress was another early DIK for me that offered the rarely seen premise of a heroine/mistress. Although there are plenty of storylines that may play with the thought of a heroine who is also the hero’s mistress, few allow it to continue to the point of the hero actually providing the heroine/mistress with both a home and income. I enjoy a well-written heroine/mistress and remembered this book with particular fondness but as I re-read More Than a Mistress this past year, my focus was not on the leads’ redemption as much as the demanding, angry hero who was perpetually in a bad mood. Although I still enjoyed some aspects of the book, it lacked the depth I have grown to expect in my favorite category and it fell from an A to a B- grade – it just didn’t do it for me any longer.

On the contemporary side, the changes in my reading tastes are not so obvious. Two particular books come to mind – another Judith McNaught book, Double Standards, and A Game of Chance by another of my favorite authors, Linda Howard. Double Standards was one of the first contemporary romances I read and I was so enthralled that I rated it my favorite contemporary romance. But now that I have re-read it twice, the grade is a lot lower and I no longer classify it as a keeper. At the time, I had read few boss/secretary romances and it fascinated me – the small town girl, Lauren Danner (and she was a girl), catching the rich CEO, Nick Sinclair, totally captivated me. Although I will always remember and relish the “you’re fired” scene in detail, reading the book again made me realize the extent of sexual harassment Nick laid upon Lauren. The fact that the leads aren’t together all that much surprised me. That and Nick’s pure meanness as he delivered one of the most humiliating rejection scenes I have read in romance didn’t add up to a favorite in my mind any longer . Their reconciliation was too fast, Nick’s comeuppance was greatly lacking, and their HEA was unconvincing. My former “favorite contemporary romance” now rates only a C.

When I re-read A Game of Chance last year, its Howard style storyline still commanded my interest while hero, Chance MacKenzie, fell into the “heroes I love to hate” category as strongly as before. Chance is convinced Sunny Miller knows key information about her criminal father and is willing to go to great lengths to extract the information from her. Chance’s cocky manipulation and endangerment of Sunny’s life was over the top this time – and all for the sake of one of those government jobs. I still can’t grasp the concept of purposely yet safely crashing a plane on a deserted island all in an effort to seduce Sunny into telling Chance all of her secrets. But his total disregard of how stressed or fearful Sunny may have felt, plus his coldhearted seduction in the name of his mission turned my stomach a bit this time rather than warming it and a lot more emotion was funneled into my huge desire to read about the comeuppance Chance so richly deserved. Formerly a solid A, A Game of Chance retains a B- grade mostly because it is written by Linda Howard and once again, holds sentimental value.

In addition to her contribution of Books You Didn’t Like section, Teresa Galloway had the following to offer about an author she once thought she adored:

“A Harlequin Temptation I read by a two-author team using the alias Debra Carroll was Obsession. I just loved it – I thought the plot of a novelist and a movie star writing a script together was so original (ha!) and that the story was really sexy too. That was the only book our library system had by that author, and I spent years combing through UBSs to find another book by her and when I finally located one, I was ecstatic (it was called Man Under the Mistletoe). But by that time I had read much more widely in romance and my tastes had become more discerning. I could barely get through it and gave it a D-. I tried again with a book of theirs called To Catch a Thief which barely scraped a C. I haven’t been able to bring myself to find the original book I loved so much and re-read it. I’m certain I would hate it. I would rather have the memories of it being a great book than re-read it and know for certain that it wasn’t.”

AAR reviewer Ha Nguyen offered her thoughts on the books she once favored but no longer does:

“My reading tastes have definitely changed over time. For example, I used to adore those Loveswept category romances by Iris Johansen, Kay Hooper, and Fayrene Preston and spent lots of money on eBay to collect them all. However, re-reading some of them in last year was a huge letdown. What I thought wonderfully romantic and original years ago now just comes across as flat, silly, and totally unrealistic. I think inevitably gaining more life experience as I get older and having read more and lots of outstanding books have gradually turned me into a more critical, and even jaded, reader. Who knows how I will look back at my current favorites from a later stage of my life? I often envy all those new or new-to-the-genre, or just easy-to-please readers, it’s so much more fun to like almost everything you read than the other way around.”

Do I demand more of the romance books I read today – have I become more discerning? I think the answer to that is a resounding yes! But while I recognize that my tastes have become more refined, I also realize I am now able to tolerate a number of scenarios that trigger my hot buttons if I know of them prior to beginning a new book and if they are surrounded by a well-written tale. My most recent experience with this was Melody Thomas’ Angel in My Bed. Had I not chosen this one for review, it’s doubtful I would have read it since its back blurb makes it clear that David, a former intelligence officer, agrees to do one more job for the British government. Romantic suspense generally keeps me from buying a book, but when you get to the historical British spy aspect, I usually can’t run away fast enough. What a fantastic, moving, romantic tale I would have missed if I had let my prejudice towards British spies get in my way! It contains one of the more beautifully written romances I have read this past year and I thank the entire reviews system that provided me the opportunity to read this moving tale. It didn’t reach DIK status because of its spy element, but was a solid B+.

Well written reviews not only help me choose the books I want to read, but also help me identify those hot spots I mentioned above so I may avoid a certain book altogether or accept less favorable plot elements in a book others consider a worthy read. Of course, attempting to deal with hot spots constructively usually forces me to withhold judgment until I am well into a book…so is it worth the effort? I am finding more and more that risking hot spots is worth it if the author is one I have read successfully in the past and/or if others with similar reading tastes to mine have recommended it. This seems to work in my favor about 50% of the time – a percentage that has increased significantly since I began reviewing for AAR and therefore read a larger range of books, some with elements I normally avoid.

One of my more successful efforts at conditioning myself to enjoy a book, despite the presence of a particularly irritating plot element, was Linda Howard’s To Die For. I consider myself a diehard Howard fan but when her later suspense releases failed to inspire me, I moved her books off my auto-buy list. I thought it was too good to be true when I heard that To Die For was more reminiscent of her old style and humorous as well. Alright, I was enthused.that is, until I heard about the cheerleader perfect heroine and that the book is written in first person no less. After months of pondering this purchase each time I saw comments hit the message boards, I gave in, bought it, and braced myself for a heroine none of us can truly identify with. Prepared to endure Blair’s perky talk and totally toned body, I fell immediately into her character – one I am sure would have taken a significant number of pages to become accustomed to had I not been forewarned. And although this was billed as romantic suspense (that hot spot again), it read like a character-driven contemporary to me. The first person narrative was actually fun after a while and in the end, I absolutely loved To Die For and it placed as my second favorite book for 2005.

And finally, when considering Books You Loved and Now You Don’t or Books You Didn’t Like and Now You Do, the question must be asked – did I love a book because I was in an exceptionally good mood or did I dislike a book because I was in a bad or depressed mood? I don’t know if any of us ever truly knows the answer to that question but I do know it can be a significant factor for me at times. Being aware of shifts in my reading enthusiasm helps me identify those highs and lows of romance reading more clearly and hopefully provides the less favorite books I read a better chance of survival. There will always be the book I hate as well as the one I love but if life has taught me one thing, it’s that things are always changing and that is certainly apropos when it comes to my reading tastes.

Here are my questions for you to answer on the At the Back Fence Message Board:

  1. Have you re-read a book you didn’t care for? What was your experience?
  2. Are you predisposed to like books more from your favorite authors or do you find you are more critical if they fall short?
  3. How have your romance reading tastes changed?
  4. What is your experience with re-reading your favorite books? Do they usually perform for you again or do they fall short of their favored status?
  5. Must you cast your characters visually? Does it ever backfire on you?
  6. Are you able to accept less favorable plots elements if you have been forewarned?
  7. Do you believe mood shifts affect your reading enjoyment or make you less/more tolerant of undesirable plot elements?

Lea Hensley

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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