At the Back Fence Issue #301

April 28, 2008

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

The Queen Is Dead…Long Live the Queen

After authoring more of my Desert Isle Keepers than any other writer, Julie Garwood is no longer my favorite romance writer. With nine DIKS to her credit, she’s just been supplanted, after more than a decade, by Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, who went from having seven DIKs to ten in a period of just a couple of weeks as a result of my marathon In Death glom this February, March, and April. In roughly two month’s time, I’ve read 20 more of the full-length books and three of the short stories that comprise the series. I am now caught up, after having first done a reasonably sized glom back in 2006, when I read the first seven books and one short story.

It’s a testament to the power of this series that a) I read that many books by any author in such a short amount of time and b) that the books are part of a series. I’ve come to the conclusion that each of the books and/or short stories are really a chapter in an extremely long book given that they occur fairly close together in chronological terms, and the relationships explored advance incrementally over time. I’ve been reviewing the books on my blog in recent weeks; so far I’ve reviewed those books falling between, but in and including, Conspiracy in Death and Visions in Death, which account for 14 titles. Two books remain ungraded at this point; I can’t decide between a B or B- for Memory in Death and need to let Innocent in Death percolate a while longer before even attempting to assign a grade.

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Until I created my Shelfari of DIKs, it never even occurred to me that another author had, or ever would surpass Julie Garwood. When I decided to see if Roberts/Robb had indeed passed Garwood, I had to count not once but twice to double check. Given that I’ve not actually bought a Garwood release in some years – and am waiting for Shadow Music to be released in paperback, if I buy it at all! – I probably should have replaced her as favorite romance author earlier, but I couldn’t consider Catherine Coulter my favorite romance author…she’d written four F’s! Not only that, my most recent Garwood DIK was published in 1993 – the most recent pub date for Coulter was 1988. Okay, so Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb passed Coulter on my DIK list by the end of 2006, but until last month I’d always mentally separated Roberts from Robb. How silly of me.

BTW, I re-read Garwood’s Guardian Angel this weekend. It remains as charming as it ever was, and reading it again reminded me why I love her writing, and why I love to read romance.

Of the authors listed in the table to the right, who’ve written more than one of my DIKs, only titles by Roberts/Robb, Anne Stuart, and Mary Alice Monroe were written recently, within the last few years. The latest for Robb – Survivor in Death – was published in 2005, as was Monroe’s Sweetgrass, and Stuart’s Ice Storm was a 2007 release. I haven’t read much Coulter in years, although I continue to buy and occasionally read her European Historicals. Kathryn Lynn Davis’ last published book was in 1999, and though I own most of Connie Brockway’s backlist, I’ve not actually read one of her books in quite a while. Continuing down my list…I no longer buy Christina Dodd, continue to read and enjoy Jillian Hunter, always kick myself for not reading more Julia Quinn, and was thrilled to learn earlier this year that Deborah Simmons will be published again. Katherine Sutcliffe’s last published book was in 2005, but after loving A Fire in the Heart and Dream Fever, and liking My Only Love almost as much, I read two clunkers she’d written previously and never read her again.

Of course, the books written by these 12 authors account for just over one-half of the 81 full-length books on my Shelfari. I continue to read romances by many of the other romance authors represented, including Linda Howard, Elizabeth Hoyt, Samantha James, Lydia Joyce, Lisa Kleypas, Lora Leigh, and Lucy Monroe, Donna Simpson, and Anne Gracie, and would read anything else by Nonnie St. George if she’d just write it.

I’d love to know what your own DIK list looks like in terms of authors who have written more than one of your all-time favorites, when those books were written, and if they continue to resonate for you. Is there an author – or two, or three – you love noticeably more than the rest? When did her books make your list…and do they still? What is it about their writing in particular that calls to you?

Romance Authors with more than one DIK
Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb Born in Fire
Chesapeake Blue
Jewels of the Sun
Sea Swept
Ceremony in Death
Naked in Death
Portrait in Death
Rapture in Death
Seduction in Death
Survivor in Death
Julie Garwood The Bride
The Gift
Honor’s Splendour
Lion’s Lady
The Prize
Rebellious Desire
Saving Grace
The Secret
Catherine Coulter Calypso Magic
Midsummer Magic
Moonspun Magic
Night Fire
The Sherbrooke Bride
Kathryn Lynn Davis All We Hold Dear
Somewhere Lies the Moon
Too Deep for Tears
Anne Stuart Ice Storm
A Rose at Midnight
To Love a Dark Lord
Connie Brockway All Through the Night
My Dearest Enemy
Christina Dodd My Favorite Bride
A Well-Pleasured Lady
Jillian Hunter Fairy Tale
Mary Alice Monroe The Beach House
Julia Quinn How To Marry a Marquis
Deborah Simmons The Last Rogue
The Vicar’s Daughter
Katherine Sutcliffe Dream Fever
A Fire in the Heart

Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb

When I look back at my Roberts/Robb favorites, certain aspects of her writing stand out. Born in Fire, for instance, features a heroine who is…let’s face it, a bitch. And I love her for it, just as I love Nora Roberts for creating such a heroine. That takes brass ones, as big as those Margaret Mary Concannon wears herself. In both Sea Swept and Chesapeake Blue, her writing of the male of the species – the camaraderie, the stinky socks, and the teasing – captured my imagination, as did bad-boy turned good-guy Cam Quinn. And while male relationships provided such richness for those two books, what I most remember about Jewels of the Sun, in addition to the hero and heroine, is the female bonding, including an hilarious drunken hen party. Ireland was another “star” of the book. As I wrote in my review, part of the magic is “in the dialogue, the brogue, the descriptions of the scenery, the down-home common-sense of the characters, and the mysticism that draws visitors to Ireland every year.”

That sense of Ireland is one of the many reasons why I’ve fallen in love with Robb’s In Death series. In Visions in Death, there’s a moment when Roarke is trying to comfort McNab after Peabody has been injured. While Ireland conjures up many /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages in my mind, one of the strongest is the sense of comfort I associate with it. Roarke embodies that as he tells his friend, “Have a bit of tea now, Ian, and catch your breath…I know what it is to have the one you love, the only one, hurt. There’s a war in your belly, and your heart’s so heavy it doesn’t seem as if your body can hold it. This kind of fear doesn’t have a name. You can only wait with it.” If I hear a characters’ voice in my head when I read a book, I know the writing resonates with me. Robb goes beyond that with Roarke, though – it’s not just his voice, his brogue – it’s the essential Irishness of his nature, which was never more clear than in Portrait in Death, when he tells Eve “I couldn’t fall out of love with you if I fell all the way to hell.”

Ireland is evoked in many more ways in the series. It’s not always the comforting Ireland, or the poetic Ireland that comes across when Roarke murmurs his love for Eve in his native tongue. There’s also the Ireland of bar fights, back streets, and violence, and that too comes to life in Portrait when Roarke returns to his native home to investigate the death of his mother and pays a visit with one of his friends, a bar owner, to one of his father’s cohorts in crime. But then, there’s also the Ireland of large families and history. I felt it strongly in Portrait when Roarke shows Eve the tree his aunt planted in memory of his mother, and also in Origin in Death (which I’ve not yet reviewed) when his extended family pays a visit for Thanksgiving.

The sense of family permeates the series, creating a strong contrast for Eve and Roarke, both of whom were born of violence and grew up on their own. Peabody and Mira’s families, and the family the two create for themselves – mostly with Eve’s friends – center and ground these two, and in Eve’s case, teach her how to be a human being. Eve, btw, is another Roberts bitch, and she’s as proud of it as she can be. She even manages to create for herself two surrogate parents, while Roarke has always had Summerset, who Eve refers to in Imitation in Death as He Who Shall Not Be Named (a tongue-in-check bit of homage to J.K. Rowling, I think).

Eve learns how to love and give – bitching about it all the way – not only from her friends, but through her relationship with Roarke. Of the two, he is the more naturally nurturing, which I found disconcerting through much of the series. But in those books when the two face adversity in their marriage and Roarke reveals not only vulnerability but occasionally male stupidity, it starts to even out. Eve may be careless in her relationships, but Roarke’s not perfect, and in Portrait and Innocent in Death (also not yet reviewed), his ability to hurt Eve down to the bone is chilling.

My Grades for the Series
Ceremony in Death
Naked In Death
Portrait in Death
Rapture in Death
Seduction in Death
Survivor in Death
Betrayal in Death
Creation in Death
Divided in Death
Glory in Death
Imitation in Death
Judgment in Death
Midnight in Death (Silent Night)
Origin in Death
Purity in Death
Reunion in Death
Born in Death
Eternity in Death (Dead of Night)
Holiday in Death
Immortal in Death
Vengeance in Death
Visions in Death
Witness in Death
B or B-
Memory in Death
Conspiracy in Death
Interlude in Death (Out of This World)
Loyalty in Death
Strangers in Death
Haunted in Death (Bump in the Night)
Remember When

 My favorite scenes in this series generally involve Eve and Peabody – whose sarcastic give and take belies incredible respect and love – Peabody and McNab, whose love scenes are invariably LOL funny, and two types of interplay between Eve and Roarke, their arguments and their love scenes. If you’ve read our reviews for the books in the In Death series, you’ll notice that most earned sensuality ratings of Hot. I too used the Hot rating for most of my blog reviews, even though, page for page, word for word, I don’t think they really are. Their love scenes are usually two or so pages, and as far as explicitness goes, well, not very. In my review of Reunion in Death, I mentioned this paradox and determined that the heat I feel from Eve and Roarke making love is generated by their emotions. It’s not the same focus on body parts, or how, physically, the heroine feels when the hero touches her body, but instead, as I mentioned in my review of Remember When (among my least favorite entries in the series, btw), it’s the love the two feel for one another when they touch that leaps off the page. Their lovemaking is invariably filled with either up-against-the-wall passion (or in the shower or on the floor), or it’s exceedingly tender and sweet and languid, which allows them to heal one another after being beat up, emotionally or physically. Either way, the heat comes from prose such as this: “The more he had of her, the more he craved in an endless cycle of love and lust and longing. He could live with whatever had come before, whatever would come after, as long as there was Eve.”

 As for their arguments, many of them center around Eve’s moral core and the morally ambiguous Roarke. In Divided in Death, Roarke discovers that federal agents knew Eve was being horribly abused by her father as a child, yet did nothing to stop it so as not to compromise their criminal investigation of him. As I wrote in my review, “Roarke’s need for revenge is soul-deep, but Eve is a cop through and through, and their differing views on the situation threaten their ability to communicate. Eve suffers greatly throughout much of the book, and Roarke reminds her who he really is underneath the smooth veneer. But she does know the real him, and what sets this book apart is how the issue is resolved…and that Eve realizes the cost to Roarke, and vice versa.”

They also disagree on a moral level in Purity in Death. A vigilante group is planting killer viruses on the computers of society’s riff-raff. And when Is say killer, I mean killer; once the users are infected, their brains literally explode in their heads. But innocent people are being killed along with the drug pushers and child molesters. Roarke has no problem with evil being killed, and given his criminal past, doesn’t believe that the system must be involved. Eve, on the other hand, is appalled at the thought of people outside the system taking the law into their own hands. Although she tends to be a moral absolutist, she worries that the Purity Seekers will take their absolutism too far. As a result, there are some tense moments, after which the couple agree to disagree in order to get along during the investigation.

Robb’s series is futuristic romantic suspense. I’m not a futuristic romance reader, not do I reach for romantic suspense…unless Anne Stuart writes it. And I’m not the only one who loves this series who isn’t a romantic suspense reader – what convinced me to try the books to begin with was Cheryl Sneed’s glom. If the Queen of Historical Romance loved a police procedural series set in 2059/2060 New York following the Urban Wars that changed the world, why wouldn’t I try at least the first book?

As it turns out, the series is an almost perfect combination of romance and suspense; some books are more heavily into relationships while others are more about crime, but all the stories engage me. So far there have been 27 full length books and four short stories in the series. Six of the books earned DIK status from me. I’ve graded another nine of the books, along with one short story, B+, and six additional books and one short story earned straight B’s from me. Right now I remain undecided about Memory in Death (it’s either a straight B or a B-) and Innocent in Death, but four more books and another short story are definitive B-‘s. Bringing up the rear are one book and the remaining short story, both of which earned grades of C+ from me. All in all, astonishing.

I know many of you have read part or all of the In Death series at least once, and I’d love to know how my grades stack up next to yours. Not all of you keep records, but I’m hoping that all of you remember which titles you liked (or loved) best. If you keep records and can post a similar list on the ATBF Forum, great…otherwise, perhaps mention your favorites and least favorites. And, as always, why they succeeded or didn’t.

Because I know not all of you have read or liked this series, I don’t want to annoy you further by continuing to wax rhapsodic about it. So I’ll stop here. If we don’t agree on the series, I hope you’ll be able to reflect back on some of the points I made and talk about romance (and reading) in general as it relates to:

  • Shelfari or another online bookcase like Bookshelf or iRead
  • Best loved authors and how they’ve changed over time
  • Your DIK list
  • Bitch heroines
  • Strong male bonding
  • Strong female bonding
  • Settings that are characters unto themselves
  • The longest series you’ve read
  • Sense of family – either actual or manufactured
  • Male vulnerability
  • Comical love scenes
  • Morality – absolutism and ambiguity
  • Non-explicit love scenes

Some News From LLB:

This year I’ve written thirty or so full reviews on my blog, and thumbnail critiques of a few others. This has been a phenomenal year for me in terms of reading, but writing all those reviews, regardless of how much I’ve enjoyed the books, served as a huge reminder of how much I miss reviewing at AAR. And so…I’m going to begin reviewing at AAR again, which means that, effective today, we will no longer accept clients for advertising. We will continue to fulfill all existing contractual commitments through the end of the year (some of our clients contract in 12-month increments) – including our donation of advertising and ad design to online charities – but when those commitments end, the site will be funded almost entirely by Amazon (and B&N) commissions. Annual costs will exceed those commissions, but I plan to make up the shortfall out of pocket.

Instead of attempting to continue to grow AAR as a business, it will once again assume “hobby” status for me. A good half of the time I currently spend working at AAR relates to advertising, and by freeing myself from that, my time instead will be devoted to co-authoring this column, writing reviews, conducting interviews, and performing administrative tasks associated with being publisher and editor-in-chief. My plan is to Get a Life with that extra time. As for you, the reader, the only changes you should notice are new reviews by me and some changes to our forums that have yet to be finalized.

One of the forum communities I hang out on in my spare time is Christopher Moore’s. I don’t post all that often because most of the regulars are a lot more clever than I am, and I worry about not keeping up with the quips. But I enjoy myself regardless. Somehow, very political and in-your-face discussion occurs there on a regular basis that do not result in flame wars. Not long ago I participated in a thread about presidents and presidential candidates. One was referred to as a scum-sucking douchebag and I myself stated that our sitting president was a fucktard. And yet, nobody was offended; the discussion was entirely tongue-in-check. Those of us who’d called George Bush a fucktard accepted that Hillary (or was it Obama?) was indeed a scum-sucking douchebag, and that was that. I’d like to think that we are capable of such no-holds-barred conversation at AAR, and so one possible change is the addition of a forum wherein the most outspoken and adventurous of us can speak of the unspeakable, including politics and religion. As in the Wild West, though, this particular forum wouldn’t have a sheriff and instead would be visited occasionally by a circuit judge. Yet another forum idea is based on a suggestion some months ago for facilitating book trades.

I never envisioned AAR to be static; we’ve been around for more than ten years now, and I plan on at least another ten. I hope you’ll stick around with us through this next evolution.

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

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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