The Year in a Glance:
It’s no secret that 1998 has been a crucial year for me. On the plus side, I’ve turned a small, archive-only web site into a much larger venture of which I am only one part. On the negative side, I managed to ruin my wrists in the process. On the plus side, 1998 was a year of tremendous growth to me as a reader – I’ve expanded my romance horizons to include contemporaries, Regency Romance, and even the occasional romantic suspense. I’ve even dipped more than a toe back into the sea of general fiction. This year I’ve read more non-romances than I’d read since I started reading romance. On the negative side, I don’t get the chance to read as often as I would like, given that AAR has grown so large. And, since my tastes continue to change, a lot of what looked good to me when I bought it doesn’t appeal to me right now, although I know it will at some point in the future (is this wishful thinking?). As a result, my tbr shelves are groaning under the weight of all those unread books. And, I’m often a bit grumpy because I miss reading just for the fun of it!
It’s time for us to start talking about the year in review, to start putting together our thoughts on books published in 1998. It’s important to remember that releases precede publishing dates by a month, so that a book you buy this month is, in actuality, a 1999 release. And, that book you bought last December really was published in 1998. This is a critical point because of the 1998 All About Romance Reader Awards, which I’ll ask you to participate in at the end of this column.
For instance, Nora Roberts’ Sea Swept was released in December of 1997 but was published in 1998. Her recent Inner Harbor, on the other hand, was released in 1998 but has a published date of 1999. Sea Swept is eligible for this year’s voting. Inner Harbor is not. Some of the categories, however, do not relate to a specific book/year. For instance, the author a reader discovered in 1998 may not even have published a book in 1998; it was simply that the reader discovered her in 1998. The same goes for the author most glommed, and for those of you for whom that is a new term, I first borrowed this real word and made it part of the romance reader’s vocabulary nearly two and a half years ago, in Issue #9 of this column. Its definition is this: Glomming is that particular affliction that affects romance readers and sends us looking all over the place for an author’s backlist. (Glomming, of course, is a complex phenomenon, and we’ve had discussions of Glomming Without Having Read as well as comparing and contrasting glom buying versus glom reading.)
When I first ran a Reader Favorites contest two years ago, I jumped out and listed my favorites to start things off. In last year’s contest, I never did. Why? Much of 1998 was devoted to transforming this site. I felt that in order to make All About Romance grow, it needed to be less of me and more of others. Not only because one person simply can’t do it all, but because I wanted to model what successful businesses do. Although AAR isn’t a business, I felt, and still feel, that it needed to make the leap from home-grown “personal page-ish-ness” to a more professional and reader-friendly site. Laurie Likes Books is still very much here, but, I hope, not so boldly pronounced. My mark is now made on the site’s “look” and in this column, and in my far-more-sporadic reviews.
Then too, there is that fine line to walk as a web-site owner and a loose cannon columnist. When we expanded our review section this past January, we relied on authors to send us books. Most of our reviews were of books we ourselves were buying. Now, of course, that we are more established and credible, we are on the distribution lists of most publishers and I spend so much time at area post offices I feel as though I work there. We make no bones about our tastes here – if we like a book, we let you know. If we don’t like a book, we let you know it as well, and we tell you why. The majority of our reviews are positive, but those D’s and F’s are prominent enough that most authors notice them.
At heart, I still am a columnist, but AAR is more than just this column – it relies on reviewers and readers, and also authors. It’s ironic to think about now, but the main reason I expanded AAR just about one year ago was to give readers a reason to visit in-between my columns. Now, of course, the column is still my favorite part of the site, but many of our newer readers came because of the reviews. Most of my time now is spent in preparation for those post office runs, waiting in line at the post office, and in the reading of and posting of new reviews by our reviewers.
So as 1999 is practically upon us, I want to get back to being somewhat of a loose cannon. I am going to list my choices for this year’s 1998 All About Romance Reader Awards. But be forewarned; many of the books I read in 1998 were either not published in 1998 nor were they romances. It’s likely that your choices will not be mine. One thing I definitely noticed – the pickings were slim in several categories based on the books I read with 1998 pub dates. Whether that’s because I chose to read so many books either not from 1998 or outside the genre, I can’t say. But this is the first year I have voted “none” in at least one category. Here goes.
Every book on my favorites list received a grade in either the A or B range. My favorite luscious love story, and this category really is for the sexiest read, received a B- from me, which is rather low to be included on this list, but I wanted to fill out that category so I could explain what a luscious love story really is.
One of the best things about my job is that, after I’ve read a book that intrigues or entices me, I’m generally able to interview its author in some fashion. I don’t have the time for as many lengthy interviews as I used to do, but I still manage to pick the brains, however briefly at times, of authors I want to. After having read An Inconvenient Wife by Patricia Oliver earlier this year, I finally “got” Regency Romance. It took me awhile to track her down, but I was able to ask away. I’ll present my Q&A with Patricia later on in this column.
Just yesterday, I got in touch with Susan Elizabeth Phillips after having been blown away by her upcoming Lady Be Good. I only bestow Desert Isle Keeper Status on a limited number of romances in any one year. In 1998, I awarded The Last Rogue by Deborah Simmons, Too Hot to Handle by Elizabeth Lowell, and Lady Be Good by SEP this honor. Because she has done so well in the voting we’ve done here for the last two years, and in particular, last year when Nobody’s Baby But Mine won three awards – for Favorite Romance, Favorite Funny, and Favorite Contemporary Romance (in this last category, she was so far ahead of the competition that I didn’t award any honorable mentions), I wanted to get her thoughts on Lady Be Good. She was generous enough to answer all my questions very quickly so that I could present them here.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Laurie Likes Books: Where did the idea for Lady Be Good come from?
Susan Elizabeth Phillips: I’ve been wanting to do another golf book for awhile. I’ve also wanted to catch up on Dallie and Francesca (Fancy Pants, their story has just been reissued by Pocket Books). It was just time.
LLB: I saw the letter to the reader from you at the start of the manuscript about how you turn into a Texan when you decide to set your books there. I’ve lived in Dallas for my entire adult life, and I know women who know the calorie count of LifeSavers, I really do. My sister-in-law, for one, and I love her dearly! I also know people who live in fake Tudor houses that are decorated with enough chintz to drape all of England. What I loved so much about this book is that you poked fun, but did it with a loving hand. Can you talk about that, and how you “know” Texas so well?
SEP: I’m very attracted to the South, in general, and Texas in particular. Basically, as a writer you can make the most improbable things happen, and if they’re set it in Texas, people will believe them! (No offense.) Thanks for the comment about the “loving hand.” The SEP creative world is a fairly benevolent universe. In real life I believe we should all try to be kinder to each other and less judgmental – appreciating individual quirks and enjoying them.
LLB: So many authors as they get more popular, and intend to head into the midstream, take the love scenes out of their books. JAK/Amanda Quick, and Julie Garwood, are two examples of this. Lady Be Good was likely the sexiest romance I’ve read in a very long time. Is it on a par with your other books or more sexual than earlier ones? What do you say about those authors who are toning down their sensuality, and do you plan to do so? I obviously think one can go mainstream and still keep love scenes – Nora Roberts does it. Is it fun to write a love scene?
SEP: Interesting question. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it isn’t. If it isn’t, I generally cut it. I have no overall plan for anything, including my love scenes! I just go with the story. (Readers should accept the fact that I’m the most non-analytical writer in the world!) As for others. . . I think some writers simply get burned out on love scenes, especially if they have a background in series romance. They’ve just written so many. Nora, of course, is the exception, but she’s the magnificent exception to everything!
LLB: Even though this is a golf story and not a football story, it reminded me of my husband’s favorite book, which I recently read – Semi-Tough, by Dan Jenkins. Have you read that, and could you comment on it if you have? Even though the stories are miles apart, I found the Jenkins book hilarious (at least the first 3/4 of it), and that is definitely a man’s book. Lady Be Good, in my opinion, should appeal to men and women, and that’s the first romance I’ve said that about.
SEP: I loved Semi-Tough too. I love any writer with a strong voice, and Jenkins certainly has it. I do have a lot of male readers, but – and I apologize to them for this – I never think about them when I write. In general, I believe most male readers prefer a more suspense-driven book than I write, but I also think they are drawn to my male characters and my humor.
LLB: You developed nearly every character just enough to make this book work, and everyone was likable except that nasty Duke. I really enjoyed that, and enjoyed the fact that there was no mystery or murder or other stuff going on to gets in the way of the romance. Talk about keeping romance in the forefront in a romance novel.
SEP: With me it’s very primal – I simply don’t enjoy suspense/mystery, either as a reader or a writer. This really puts me in a minority, but I’m happy to occupy it. It’s human relationships that continue to intrigue and inspire me.
LLB: I said in my review that I didn’t know you were going to build a secondary romance for Torie and Dexter. I’m so glad you did, however. Talk about writing a spanking scene in the 1990’s (and making it work), Dexter’s being a geek, and how this secondary romance developed. Was it planned or did it just happen?
SEP: Nothing in my books is ever planned. However, as soon as I met Torie, I knew I had to see more of her. (She’s the woman I’ve always wanted to be!) I’ve written the “hero as geek” before in Hot Shot, and enjoyed it so much. The “spanking scene” was pure devilment. So politically incorrect that I couldn’t resist. I giggled the entire time I was writing it.
LLB: My one criticism of the book was in that final conflict; it just didn’t ring true to me. What I also said in my review, however, was that this small problem was more than compensated for by the epilogue. How important are epilogues in a romance? Some of my favorite romances became my favorites because of their wonderful epilogues; of course, the books were great too, but the epilogues clinched it. Case in point – Bewitching by Jill Barnett. And now Lady Be Good.
SEP: Fascinating comment to me. Again, I do everything internally and, living inside Emma’s body, I just didn’t believe Kenny at that point. Worked for me, not for you – that’s what makes writing interesting! As for the epilogue, thanks, but it still wasn’t in the same league with Bewitching, the most brilliant epilogue ever written! I do epilogues in most of my books simply because I love the closure. A lot of books feel too rushed at the end – wrapping up major plot threads in a few paragraphs – and I think that cheats the reader. (In defense of my fellow writers, I don’t have the word count constraints on me that others have.)
LLB: Are you planning on writing a romance for Ted (Dallie and Francesca’s son, part golfer/part geek/part hunk – what a combination!)? Or do we have to wait until he ages a bit more? And, did you plan to make this a sequel for Fancy Pants or did you just “work it in?”
SEP: Ted is my child, as much as Francesca and Dallie’s, and we’ll definitely have to wait on him. He’s been growing up in the same time frame as my own sons. As for intent – yes, I’ve been wanting to do a spin off for a long time. Fancy Pants is a very early book for me and far from perfect, but I lived with those characters for so long, and I’ve always loved them. I simply had to see how they were getting along.
LLB: Many things didn’t make it into my review or it would have been even longer than it was. One thing I did note was that underlying all the hilarity was some fairly serious depth. It seems to me that authors who use humor in their romances often don’t get the “credit” they deserve from some readers who dismiss their work as lightweight. I disagree with this, and my favorite authors in romance are the humorous ones. Can you speak to this and talk about it a bit?
SEP: In my experience, an author can either do humor or can’t. I never set out to write funny, it just happens. Some characters are intrinsically funnier than others. (Gabe, for example, in Dream a Little Dream, had too much tragic baggage to be a wacky guy.) I also think that one of the things that really makes humor work is not always going for the joke. You’re definitely right about humor being dismissed as lightweight, but that goes all the way back to the Greeks, and it won’t ever change.
LLB: How much fun did you have writing this book, and how long did it take you to write it?
SEP: I truly had a ball with this one. It took me just shy of a year. Some books I “angst” over more than others. This wasn’t one of them.
LLB: Talk about writing a totally misunderstood man, and whether anyone but their lady loves ever fully understand them.
SEP: I like male characters with edges. I’m never interested in writing flawless people. The idea of doing a “spoiled rich boy” didn’t hit me at once, but as soon as it did, I couldn’t resist.
LLB: What’s next for you, and when will it be? A year from now?
SEP: I’m not quite ready to talk about the new book for another few weeks. For now, let me just say that I think it’s coming out in January 2000, and I’m really excited about it.
I first read An Inconvenient Wife late this spring, and tried and tried to locate Patricia Oliver. Months later, I finally did, and we finally put this Q&A together this fall. I’ve been holding on to it for several weeks now, and decided to use it now as a reminder to readers that Regency Romance is an endangered species. As of January 1999, there are only two publishers who are continuing to publish this sub-genre – Signet and Zebra (Fawcett’s last Regency Romances are being released by the end of this year). Whether you “get” Regency Romance, it’s important to remember that many of your favorite authors of historical romance, including Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, Stephanie Laurens, and Mary Balogh (whose last Signet Regency Romance came out earlier this year), began as Regency Romance authors. In Ellen Micheletti’s recent interview with Carla Kelly, the author indicated she does not plan to write Regencies in the future because the pay for them is so low.
When I first wrote to Patricia, she wrote back, “I shuddered at some of your review ratings, but at least they sounded honest and not the usual sugar-coating one finds in too many reviews. I enjoyed your review of An Inconvenient Wife and am glad it turned you on to Regencies. I try to keep within the genre while avoiding mindless fluff and absurd stereotypes. The language is often difficult for non-Regency readers, but it is half the fun for us die-hards.”
We began to correspond, and our resulting Q&A follows:
Laurie Likes Books: Romance is such a large genre. Why do you write in the Regency sub-genre?
Patricia Oliver: The Regency is my very favourite historical period and always has been. Politeness, elegance, good manners, style, are hallmarks of the Regency era recreated in fiction by Georgette Heyer so long ago. It provides a welcome escape from the vulgarity and crassness of our own age.
LLB: What do you think about the cancellation of the Fawcett line? Only Zebra and Signet are left, and didn’t Signet reduce the number of Regency Romances it releases every month about a year ago? If not, please set the record straight.
Patricia: I am disappointed that Fawcett decided to drop Regencies from its list. It can only hurt all Regency authors when recognized publishers cease to support our genre. And Fawcett is not the first to bail out. Harper and Warner fell by the wayside years ago, followed by Berkley more recently. Even Signet, one of the staunchest supporters of Regencies, reduced its Regency releases from four to three.
LLB: So many authors switch from Regencies to historicals set in the regency. Do you plan to do so?
Patricia: Eventually I hope to do so. I have several plots fermenting, one set in Scotland which I visited last summer to gather atmosphere. I greatly admire other Regency authors who have moved on to bigger books, especially Mary Jo Putney, Catherine Coulter, Pat Rice, Mary Balogh, and others.
LLB: Do you find Regencies at all confining in terms of their formality? Or is that what you like best of all?
Patricia: No, I do not find the Regency period confining at all. I like formality. Actually it is rather comfortable to know the rules that govern the genre – and to break them when I wish to be a little different, as I do in my February ’99 release, The Lady in Gray, which includes murder and adultery.
LLB:Kate Moore told me last year that an historical is about passion while a Regency is about conversation. Do you agree? How do you define a Regency Romance?
Patricia: I cannot speak for other authors, but my Regencies are definitely about passion. In my earliest one, Scandalous Wager, there was a serious amount of drawing room chatter, but since then I believe I have grown progressively more concerned with the emotional conflicts of my characters rather than their conversational skills. Less talk, more action, sort of thing. I am fascinated by the motivations of characters, and spend considerable time delving into their thoughts and the psychological conflicts that drive them. Naturally, I enjoy clever repartee as well as any reader, and usually try to develop at least one character in each book who is adept at it, but my plots are driven by physical attraction and emotional involvement rather than chitchat.
LLB: What is it about the regency period that so fascinates romance readers and authors? Most historicals are set in medieval times or the regency. Why do you suppose that is?
Patricia: I believe we are fascinated by the Regency period because on one level life was like a game of chess, and many of us love to play games. As Jane Austin showed us so long ago, the objective for any unmarried girl was to “catch” a husband and establish herself in society. Success depended on the moves she made. Any man with a solid income and passable looks, like Mr. Darcy, was fair game, if he had a title, so much the better. All too often the gentlemen held the best cards and the lady had to resort to ingenuity, beauty, cunning, and sometimes downright trickery. I am speaking of fiction only, naturally, and lighthearted fiction at that, which is generally what Regencies are. As an author, I always enjoy working out the moves my characters make in order to attract/avoid one another.
I cannot agree that most historicals are set in medieval or Regency periods. What about westerns? Patricia Potter is one of my favourites and I have plans to try my hand at a western if nothing else gets in the way. Jo Beverley has written some wonderful Georgian historicals, breaking away from her Regency roots.
LLB: I didn’t make myself clear when I said most historicals are set in the medieval or Regency periods. Yes, there are tons of westerns. I meant to ask why English historicals are set in medieval or Regency periods, especially given the brevity of the regency. Lately I’ve been reading more Victorian-set English historicals, but except for a few like Jo’s Georgians, most English historicals that are not medievals are set in the regency. Would you agree with that?
Patricia: If we are speaking only of English historicals, I would certainly agree with you that a disproportionate number are set in the Regency or the medieval periods. I believe Jane Austin is to blame [or praise perhaps is a better word] for the popularity of the Regency, and Georgette Heyer is a close second, with Barbara Cartland joining the trend later. Readers in England became accustomed to reading Regency historicals because they were available. Remember that whether we like it or not, publishers control what the public reads. In my rambles through British bookstores, I have found no modern Regency-period writer who has matched the following Heyer had and still has. Besides availability, for readers living so close to Bath, Brighton, and other popular Regency settings, history – especially Regency history – till has a strong presence in their lives. They rub elbows with it every time they walk down Regent’s Street, Piccadilly, Hyde Park, or go on holiday tours to country houses that maintain a style of life few of us will encounter elsewhere. From a writer’s point of view, this is a priceless opportunity to immerse ourselves in history, although I seriously doubt the average Brit gives it as much significance as we Americans do. Medieval historicals are probably popular for many of the same reasons. The British Isles are littered with relics, most of them scrupulously preserved, of castles from those ancient days, an era usually portrayed as glittering and glorious. Romanticizing the past is a national addiction there as it is over here with the cowboy and the West.
LLB: Since you mentioned the possibility of writing a western, can you talk about that some more? I know that many see parallels between Scots Highlands romances and westerns, but, to me, a western and a Regency seem very far afield. What would be the attraction for you to a western, and how would you go about convincing a publisher and your readers to cross sub-genre lines? Since you mentioned wanting to write a full-length historical, would that first one be a western or the more traditional, for you, English historical?
Patricia: I’m a little superstitious about discussing the subject of writing a western myself. So many things have to happen before it catches an editor’s fancy. Who knows? Perhaps it will prove to be a false start, but as a writer my head is swimming with plots, and it so happens that several of them are set in the American West. Texas, my home state, is naturally my first choice and I have another set in Montana, a place that has always fascinated me. But you are absolutely right about the Scottish-Western connection. Patricia Potter has combined these settings very successfully. I must confess that I also have a Regency historical in the works, set in the Highlands, which is why I was over in Scotland this past summer climbing all those endless stone stairs and getting a back-breaking feel for what it must have been like to live in a Scottish castle in any age.
To get back to Westerns, I have been a western fan from the Zane Grey days and was delighted to find the focus shifting from male concerns, fence mending, branding, land grabbing, and brawling at the OK Corral, towards more romantic plots with woman as central characters, many of them tough women, the kind I like to write about. Most of my Regency heroines are also tough, besides being stubborn and independent, so I foresee no difficulty in setting them in a different environment. I am ideally situated for research, too, having the Hidalgo Historical Museum four or five blocks from my house, where the rope that hanged the last rustler in this area still hangs from the tower, and the University of Texas archives a short 300 miles to the north.
As for your question about convincing publishers and readers to cross over genres with me, I believe that this excursion into new territory may be smooth or it may be bumpy, but it will certainly be exciting for me as a writer to branch out into a new genre. Ultimately, success will depend upon a combination of many things, some of which I cannot control. In the meantime, I shall continue to write the Regencies I love – I am on my sixteenth at the moment, called Scandalous Secrets, and my latest, Lady in Gray, due out in February 1999, introduces a touch of mystery and murder, which is, by the way, another genre at which I have always wanted to try my hand. But that is another story.
LLB: Talk about the irony of the glittering world of the ton at a time when England was at war and there was so much poverty and hunger and political strife.
Patricia: There is plenty of irony in this contradictory state of affairs, but poverty and hunger have existed in all ages since time began, and always will I’m afraid. But we are talking about fiction here, and fiction, especially romantic fiction, is considered entertainment. Readers want to escape the evils of the real world and enjoy a taste of make-believe, which is what I try to give them. There are some wonderful authors, Anita Mills (Secret Nights) and Mary Balogh (Longing) come to mind, who deal extensively with the less fortunate side of life in their novels, but they make sure that romance shines through at the end, as it should in romantic fiction.
(Links to Patricia Oliver can be found after our Desert Isle Keeper Review of The Lady in Gray.)
Here’s What I Need From You:
First and foremost, I need for each of you to vote in our 1998 All About Romance Reader Awards. You may vote between now and January 31, 1999. Please remember that, for the majority of categories, you should limit your votes to romances with a 1998 pub date. Once you submit your ballot, you will be returned to the most recent issue of this column.
Next, it’ll be time for you to post to the Laurie’s News & Views message board, where, instead of posting a list of questions, I’ll just want you to talk about your year in review as I did in terms of reading this year. Did you read mostly 1998-published books, mostly romance, did you have trouble finding enough books to fill in your ballot, etc.? Don’t feel you have to limit yourself to these questions – this is the last column of the year, and my present to you is to give you a forum for anything about what you’ve read this year.
Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
In conjunction with Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Patricia Oliver
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