At the Back Fence Issue #282

October 29, 2007 – Issue #282

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

 The Wall-Banger

As I started to think of ideas for this week’s ATBF, a topic on the Potpourri Forum caught my eye: When Does a Book Hit the Wall?

It just so happens that last week I read a book that totally sucked – it was an F. I don’t give F’s terribly often; for comparative purposes, slightly under 5% of the books I’ve read in the past thirteen years have earned F grades and just over 5% have earned DIK status. In looking back at my earliest reviews, I noticed my definition of a just what constitutes an F has evolved over time. The guidelines for grading that reviewers follow at AAR are that for a book to earn a grade of F, the reviewer cannot have liked any of it – not one single thing. Apparently when I started reviewing, my standards for an F were slightly less stringent. I’m not sure if that is or is not a good thing, but if you’d like, we can talk about that on the ATBF Forum.

To me, any book that earns an F has also earned wall-banger status. Like many other readers, at this point in my life, I’m more likely to simply stop reading a true wall-banger when given the choice, but earlier on as a reader, I couldn’t bring myself not to finish a book I’d begun. Chalk it up to one of those reader quirks. Unlike some readers – and this should be obvious to anyone who has ever frequented AAR – I am not of the belief that every book published has some redeeming quality, else why did they publish it? I don’t grade on effort; nor do I consider the fact that any book published was purchased by an editor who thought it would sell.

Judging a book’s quality is entirely subjective whether the reader is a reviewer or not, and just as there are many reasons why a reader might love a book, there are many reasons why a reader might want to hurl one against the wall.Were I to try and define what constitutes a wall-banger, I’d have to fall back on “I know one when I read one.” It’s most often a very strong negative visceral reaction, but when I dissect the books I’ve hated, I can see it’s content – storyline, premise, characterization – the writing itself (pacing, style, prose), or some combination thereof that leads me to want to dent my wall with a book. Some people say it’s “wrong” to call a book bad if it’s “well-written”; I think that’s ridiculous, and elitist as well. On the other hand, I can fully accept that a book I hated may be one you loved…or vice versa.

The book I hated last week is Gambler’s Woman, written by Jayne Ann Krentz and published in 1983. You could certainly have colored me shocked that one my go-to comfort read authors had written such a horrendous book, but what also surprised me was that initially, I couldn’t bring myself to call it an “F”, even though it had no redeeming qualities. That’s right, even though I had nothing positive to say about it – and actually grimaced while reading much of it – I almost put down “D” in my database, simply because JAK had written it. Then I realized that, yes, it was possible for JAK to have written an “F” book; after all, four of her books had earned “D” level grades, so, why not an “F”? Particularly in that this book had absolutely none of what I look for and enjoy in a book by JAK aka Amanda Quick. Which means instead, it featured: a dull storyline; a total lack of humor; a stalker hero; a weenie heroine; and groan-inducing dialogue. Yes, it’s a relatively early JAK release, but Whirlwind Courtship was even older, and it read far more like JAK than Gambler’s Woman. This book didn’t read as though Krentz had written it. I know it was first published by Krentz as Stephanie James, but unless James was Krentz’s pseudonym for her crappy books – as opposed to Amanda Quick for her historicals or Jayne Castle for her futuristics – I don’t think that’s a salient point. What’s more important to me is that the very author whose books I grabbed to take to the hospital when my daughter had a life-threatening illness had utterly failed me last week. That pissed me off.

Gambler’s Woman begins when Alyssa Chandler, an accountant during the week and recently a Vegas gambler on the weekend, notices that she is being watched by a “dangerous” looking man. Though she worries that he works for the house and is about to bounce her out for using her math skills to beat the casino, he’s not. Jordan Kyle is a professional gambler attracted to Alyssa. He wants to spend the night with her and will not take no for an answer.

The two make passionate love after their evening together, and when Alyssa wakes, it is to Jordan going through her wallet. At this point any non-fictional woman would have either tossed him out of the room or ran out as fast as she could, she instead accepts the explanation that he wanted to get to know her better. And then they spend the rest of the weekend together and make plans to meet the next weekend.

Unfortunately, Alyssa doesn’t remember until later that she’s hosting a party at her home the next weekend – one at which her boss and several co-workers will attend – and when she tries to contact Jordan at the hotel, she gets no answer. Rather than leaving a message, though, she tries again the next night…and the next, before eventually leaving a message canceling their tryst. She’s sure he’s already moved on to another woman, which wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, while Jordan’s reaction most assuredly is: He shows up at her party, and it’s clear he’s furious with her. At first he assumed she was trysting with some other man, but even when he realized she was indeed hosting a party, his menacing behavior continued. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from accusing her of having an affair with one of her co-workers…even after she emphatically denies it…but what angers him more than anything is that she tried to keep him out of her “real” life. Yes, after one weekend, Alyssa is “his” woman – and he’s damned if anybody is about to put him in the corner! Never mind that she has a very reasonable fear that should her gambling be discovered by her employer, her sensitive position might be endangered, she’s “his” and she’d better not keep him out of her life.

At this point any non-fictional woman would have either tossed him out of her house or run out as fast as she could. Instead, they make love, and then repeat the same argument the next day. Jordan compounds his asinine behavior when he sees a man giving Alyssa money at the front door; he accuses her of being a whore, getting paid by the man who obviously must have previously utilized her sexual services. Alyssa, saint that she is, had lent the money to the man and his wife – her friends – so they could afford to have their baby in a hospital.

At this point (seeing a theme here?) any non-fictional woman would have either tossed him out of her house or run out as fast as she could. Instead, Jordan and Alyssa continue on, arguing throughout most of the remainder of the book, and his obnoxiousness is so unlike any of JAK’s other heroes that it’s hard to believe she wrote this book. And in her spinelessness Alyssa is equally unlike any of Krentz’s other heroines. As for the humor I’ve come to expect after reading something like 30 other books by this author, this was totally devoid of it.

This book’s wall-banger status became even more clear when I began to read an ARC of the next in Marjorie Liu’s Dirk & Steel series. So far I’m half-way through the book and each page has me riveted. I think the only reason I finished Gambler’s Woman was so I could complain about it publicly.

This year I’ve read three romance wall-bangers – and three romance DIK’s. The wall-bangers? The aforementioned Gambler’s Woman, Collette Gale’s Unmasqued (which I originally graded a D-, but after I’d thought about it, realized that the two pages that had originally saved it from being a total failure were not, in fact, enough to save it from ignominy), and Bonnie Hamre’s Sweet Discipline, the absolute worst D/s erotic romance I’ve ever read. It’s not altogether surprising to me that two of the three books I hated this year were erotic romances; IMHO, quality in the sub-genre varies tremendously. That said, though, my strong negative reactions to both of these erotic romances were for entirely different reasons. In Unmasqued, an erotic re-telling of the Phantom of the Opera story, thoroughly unpleasant characters (both primary and secondary) and sex so pain-filled that it was actually tedious in its kink were the main reasons I wanted to put it through the shredder. As for Sweet Discipline, much of my dislike stemmed from the fact that the “hero”, a trainer at an expensive spa, made the “heroine” his submissive without her knowledge. She came to the spa to lose weight and instead found herself held psychologically, sexually, and and emotionally hostage to the man she thought was simply her “trainer”. After the former book, I felt I needed a long cleansing shower – after the latter I simply felt degraded on behalf of the heroine’s degradation, which was extensive.

I asked Anne and Robin for their definitions of “wall-banger.” For Anne, and for me, a wall-banger causes a strong negative reaction. She defines a wall-banger as a book that “really pisses [her] off”. And we totally agree that a wall-banger isn’t a dull book, or a mediocre book, or a book “whose only sin is bad style…unless it’s so bad that [she’s] angry it was published.” But we disagree on this point: Anne might want to throw a book against the wall if it’s “an otherwise great book with characters – usually the heroes – whose behavior angers me.” To me that’s a disappointing book rather than a wall-banging one. I’m sure Anne’s not the only reader whose frustration with a disappointing book is so great that they want to dent the wall, but for me, the frustration that accompanies a wall-banger comes from the fact that I can’t stand the book in its entirety – or very nearly its entirety. But let’s get back to Anne’s definition:

“A book walks the knife edge between wall-banger and tense read based on how the other character responds to the bad behavior. Does the heroine have the word ‘Welcome’ written across her forehead? Thunk! On the other hand, does she tell him off? In that case, I’m putting on my seatbelt and settling in. Another thing that can drive me over the edge is a book with TSTL characters, because both bad behavior and TSTL behaviors are tied together – they make me think ‘No one can be that dense!’

“Above all, wall-bangers are always memorable. How many people recall that dull category romance we read in 2000? I don’t. But ask me about Diana Palmer’s Heart of Ice, and I can remember when I read it, in the same way you remember where you were when you heard about a disaster. I read the whole book in the afternoon while I sat on the floor of the spare room at my parents’ house, getting angrier and angrier at both the hero and the heroine. Even though I read it nearly a decade ago, I still remember sitting there and being appalled, and yes, reading every word of it. How could this man be the hero? He called the heroine a slut because she wrote romance novels? How could she be such a doormat? How could their mutual friends not have him beaten up for that behavior? And then there’s Rosemary Rogers’ Wicked Loving Lies, which I read in the 1980s and yet still remember. That hero was bad enough to knock Heart of Ice off the top of the list. Say what you will about Palmer’s hero, at least he didn’t have the heroine branded.

“Laurie asked me to think about the worst wall-bangers I’ve read. Actually ranking them was next to impossible, but after mulling it over, I realized something interesting. The authors who’d written the worst offenders were all authors I’d bought again after reading their horror stories. In some cases I may have been having a weak moment, but I’d rather buy books by authors who can affect me strongly than those who bore me. So an author shouldn’t be upset to learn that she’s written a book I consider a wall-banger. There’s something weirdly addictive about reading a book that makes me angry, so I don’t cross authors off my list unless their books are both wall-bangers and bad in other ways.”

Okay…so that’s another reason why Anne and I were not separated at birth. Unless the author is already an auto-buy author, or has written a DIK, I won’t give them another chance if they’ve written what I consider a wall-banger. And, as a general rule, I won’t read any author again whose first book didn’t earn at least a B- from me. I’ve made some exceptions over the years, but almost always have regretted doing so. How many strikes do you allow before calling an author “out,” and has your rule changed over time?

Robin approached things a bit differently, and used the worst offenders she’d read to describe just what constitutes a wall-banger for her. Here is what she had to say about a series of oldies but baddies that could easily begin a Wall-Bangers Wall of Shame:

“When Laurie asked me for comments, she used a term that made me laugh, ‘slog-worthy.’ Laurie used the term in a different context but it made me think a bit about wall-bangers. It seems to me that a wall-banger is a book that is not slog-worthy – not for a minute, but that for some reason you slogged through most of it anyway. Sometimes someone else’s DIK is a slog-worthy book; you may believe, even as the book tortures you, that somehow, as unlikely as it seems, the book will improve, or, even if it doesn’t improve like Shakespeare or The Bible, it is worth spending time on.

“I had just that feeling when I slogged through Kathleen Woodiwiss’ A Season Beyond a Kiss, a barely readable book. When I read it, I was at a loss as to how some people were able to read it for pleasure. Just figuring out, sentence by sentence, what the author was trying to say, tortured me endlessly. About three chapters in I began to doubt my reading ability. No kidding. Throw the book against a wall? That was too good for it. After I wrote the review I tore the book up and threw the pages away so that no other self respecting reader might accidentally come across it. Now that’s a wall-banger!

“Cassie Edwards, whom we know longer review, wrote a series of wall-bangers and, for all I know, she is still going strong. In a curious way, Cassie Edwards is also slog-worthy because the only reason to read her is to tell others about the experience. The book I read was Savage Fires, a book about a 19th century female lawyer in a wheelchair. The book is unintentionally hilarious. Throw it against the wall? There’s something on nearly every page that tempts you to throw it against the wall, including the dialogue written in Tonto-speak, a western town that seems to be conforming with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the heroine’s miraculous recovery, and the Indian hero’s enlisting the help of wolves and vultures in saving his lover from the villain. (Apparently they understand English.)

“One of of my wall-bangers wasn’t a really terrible book, it just had mistakes in it which were so horrendous I wanted to throw them at the author…or call her up and tell her to do some research. That was my reaction when I discovered that the heroine in one of Laurie’s favorites, The Real Deal, was a middle manager sent directly to another company to try to convince them to do a merger. The mistake was so huge that I somehow deluded myself into believing that this heroine was an investment banker. When Laurie told me she was not, I wanted to write a hostile letter to the author telling her to do basic homework.

“So far my wall-bangers illustrated horrendous writing, laughable premises, and a lack of research. I chose Emily Hendrickson’s Miss Haycroft’s Suitors for the opposite reason: The book was over-researched, so much so that I remember it to this day for its descriptions of minutia. My impression from reading it was that the author took the waste not, want not approach when it came to research, putting every silly detail imaginable into the book, including what each person ate any given meal.”

Okay, everybody, now it’s time for you to share your worst wall-bangers, as well as why they hit the wall for you. In addition, consider these questions:

What is your definition of a wall-banger?

Has a favorite or comfort read author ever written a wall-banger?

Have you ever tried an author again whose only other book you tried was a wall-banger?

How many wall-bangers have you read this year? Throughout your years of reading romance?

Years later, do you tend to remember your wall-bangers more or less vividly than DIK’s you have read?

Given the choice – I know, silly hypothetical question – between a wall-banger and a boring book, which would you choose to read?

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

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