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Treat yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

December 15, 2002 - Issue #151


We know how busy you are at this time of year and thank you for swinging by to spend some of your precious holiday time with us. We hope you'll find this new column worth the break from your probably-frantic schedule. Happy holidays, and enjoy our discussions of books reissued and rewritten and the worst romances of 2002.

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The Flip Side of Buried Treasures:
Books that Should Never have been Reprinted (Anne Marble)

While there are some books romance fans desperately want to see reprinted, don't you sometimes see a new reprint and think "Why was this reprinted?! Don't they realize they could have reprinted Robert Gellis instead?"

What reissues have come under fire? The list is long and varied. They range from older romances from the "bodice ripper" days (such Karen Robards' Island Flame and Sea Fire; Rebecca Brandewyne's Love, Cherish Me and And Gold Was Ours); early undistinguished books from authors with a distinguished career (Leigh Greenwood's Wicked Wyoming Nights); old category romances (such as Barbara Delinsky's early single title romances, including Gemstone , as well as some of Diana Palmer's older series romances); and some newer series books as well (such as Sharon Sala's Gambler's Daughters trilogy, which includes Queen and Lucky).

I read both a Brandewyne reprint and a Robards reprint for review for AAR, and disliked both books. Yes, I could see how these books must have been exciting books in the times when they were published. I might have read both books when they first came out - and if I was annoyed with the Big Mis plots, long separations, and bodice ripping, I put up with it because they were common at the time. Today, however, I no longer have the patience for heroes who act as if they should be in therapy and heroines who put up with verbal abuse and worse. That's not to say I don't feel like reading about the ripping of bodices now and then, but only if I approach them as I would a campy adventure movie from the 1950's. The Brandewyne could have been campy fun but destroyed its campiness with too many "yuck" moments such as the evil nun subplot. There are better books in that vein to reprint - such as Valerie Vayle's Lady of Fire series. I feel sorry for readers new to romance who pick up these books, not realizing they come from a different era of romance writing. How many would-be romance readers have been lost because they thought all books were like that?

On the other hand, even these books have fans who were glad to see the reprints. That's why they call it controversy, right? Not long ago, on the Reviews Message Board, many fans posted about their disagreement with the reviews the Sala reprints received. For example, Keishon said, "I respectively disagree with this very harsh review of Sharon Sala's Queen. It has been quite some time since I've last reread this story but I thought it was one of Sharon Sala's best books especially in the series and very hard to find, too."

AAR's negative reviews of the reissue of Jude Deveraux's Twin of Fire and Twin of Ice also generated posts from fans who still loved the originals. And I confess, there are some "infamous" reprints that others hate which I want to read again, or even to read for the first time. For example, I really do want to read Linda Howard's Sarah's Child, because for every reader who came away from that reading experience believing that Sarah's child wasn't the baby she was carrying but the hero Rome, there are an equal number of readers who found the book profoundly moving.

So why are many reissues so controversial with readers? Some books simply don't stand the test of time because they are so dated. The heroes are alpha jerks, and the heroines are doormats. Even worse are books that were written when the author was still finding her voice. For example, the earliest Jayne Ann Krentz novels come complete with l heroes that would seem really out of place in her books today. In Man with a Past, the hero almost rapes the heroine. As LLB herself asks, "can you imagine a JAK hero practically raping a heroine? Having read nearly 30 Krentz/Quick romances, this came as a total shock." LLB was also surprised when she picked up several reissues a couple of years ago of JAK titles first published under the name of Stephanie James. Though JAK has been a comfort-read author for her, she has yet to finish any of these early books. And while Linda Howard is known for alpha heroes, the heroes of her first few novels are true alpha heels.

But what's the problem? Many readers want those older books - some because they are collectors and some because they like the older style of romance novels and aren't about to apologize for it. And for others, it's simply a chance to continue a glom. Well, part of the problem is that not every reader realizes she is getting a reprint. Just check the reader reviews of the reissue of Linda Howard's All That Glitters and The Independent Wife on Amazon. In the case of ATG, at least one reader was so offended by this book that she declared that she would never buy another Linda Howard novel because she had just published a book where the "hero" raped the heroine. She didn't understand that the book was a reprint of a dated book, written to early 1980's romance sensibilities. Too bad she missed our interview with Linda Howard, in which she herself admitted that ATG was "a bad book" although "...a good book for the times."

Reprints of early Sandra Brown novels haven't fared much better. AAR Reviewer Jennifer Schendel says:

"Sandra Brown reprints should be forbidden, especially hardcover copies of series books from the 80's. Not only are they horrid 9 times out of 10, but who wants to find out they're paying $19+ for something originally sold for under $4? I'll admit her paperback re-issues of Adam's Fall, Led Astray, and Above and Beyond are my personal guilty pleasures, but let's face it, Hawke O'Toole's Hostage should never been published the first time, let alone reprinted in hardcover (at the very least they could've changed it to less silly title)."

Also, many people buy those books because they have read Sandra Brown's suspense novels, and they are disappointed when they get a short, dated romance. Even the short disclaimers warning readers that this is a reprint and that it was written to different standards and so forth don't get the point across. From the angry reader reviews on Amazon, it's clear many readers never even glance at these statements. Many readers rant about feeling ripped off because they expected a Sandra Brown suspense novel and got a short romance instead. They can't understand why she would waste her time writing this when she could be writing a suspense novel. (Isn't it ironic that many romance fans are upset because they believe she could be writing romance novels instead of wasting her time writing suspense novels?)

Now that most of Sandra Brown's sales are in suspense, publishers who reissue her older books risk alienating her new readership. When publishers reissue books this dated, or books written before the author was skilled, they often do the author a disservice.

Two other authors that come to mind in this regard are Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich. Roberts' first book, reissued a couple of years ago, does not stand up well compared to books she wrote just a few years later, and now that Silhouette is flooding the market with Roberts reissues, wary readers who don't check the copyright page carefully may not be prepared for some of these earlier books, written with a far heavier and stereotypical hand than they are used to reading from this author. Evanovich, who wrote several series titles under the name Steffie Hall before moving on to greater glory as the author of the Stephanie Plum series - and many of these are quite collectible - recently rewrote a book with author Charlotte Hughes. Full House was not received with particular enthusiasm, but more on re-writes shortly.

Karen points out that authors may be hurting themselves (or that publishers may be hurting these authors) by not delineating reprints as older books, often in a different writing style than the books an author is currently known for. She writes:

"I was at Walden's one day when I heard two women talking about Linda Howard. One said that she really loved two of her books 'but then she bought the new one and it was totally different' and not worth the money, so she didn't plan to buy Howard any more. I went up to her and told her that the 'new' book she had read really wasn't new at all, that it was written years ago when Howard was writing category romance, and that was why the style seemed so different. She was really surprised that an older book like that would be reissued to look new. It's hard enough to keep track of the reprints when you're a fairly savvy reader, but for someone who isn't particularly knowledgeable about these things, it may turn off more readers than it attracts. I wonder how many fans of the suspense styles of Linda Howard, Elizabeth Lowell, and other authors have been disappointed by a 'new' book they picked up by those authors, and ended up not buying the author again."

According to another reader, "I've seen some reprints that made me groan in horror. Mostly books from the early 80's... just don't fit our modern reading tastes for more intelligent and proactive heroines. But it's more than just the change in style and tastes - the 'should never have been reprinted' ones are just plain poorly written, no matter who wrote them or when."

That's the clincher. People who were reading romance in the 1970's and 1980's accepted that the heroes often acted like complete jerks. I know because I read some of those books, too. I knew everything would come out okay in the end. If one hero was a bigger jerk than most, I might roll my eyes or put the book down for a while, but as long as the book compelled me, I would keep reading (I rarely gave up on books then). If needed, I could imagine myself in the heroine's place, giving the !@#$ a piece of my mind. After all, I wanted to know how the plot turned out (I'll watch even bad sitcoms to find out how the plot turns out), and most of all, I wanted to reach that moment when the hero realized he was wrong. But publishers have to remember that the readership has changed - and that even people who used to accept those complete jerks are no longer so understanding. When I first started reading romances, there weren't that many choices if I wanted a romance. Now, there are more romances, not to mention myteries, SF, and fantasy with romantic plots. So in many cases, what was a good book for the times is now a wallbanger for me.

Of course, one woman's poisonous reprint is another woman's treasure. Plenty of fans love Judith McNaught's Whitney, My Love and were happy to see it reprinted; many were thrilled with the revised version as it eliminated one scene found offensive to some readers. But Maisy was not impressed at all and nominated it as a book that should never have been reprinted:

"I didn't read this book when it originally came out, but there was a lot of hoopla about the reissue because it contained new material. I've noticed that a lot of people count the book as one of the best romances they've ever read. I had never read anything by this author before, but I gave this one a try. Boy, what a mistake! IMHO, the plot was ridiculous - how many tragedies can possibly befall one heroine? - and the characters were even worse. Talk about TSTL! I literally had to force myself to finish the book, to make sure I didn't miss something fantastic that made it such a favorite. In the last fifty pages, I did come across a charming but very out-of-place scene. It was intriguing, touching, interesting, and definitely made me want to know more. It was also very obviously a new scene inserted to give the author the option of writing some prequels. And I've never even looked to see if the author published those new books in the series. I disliked the one I read so much that I just can't bring myself to find out if she could switch styles and produce 400 non-irritating pages. I was left feeling that Whitney was a book re-issued only because of the author's name recognition, and that readers who purchased the reissue were being set up for future purchases. I'm sorry to trash this book; as I said, I know that a lot of people count it as one of their favorites. I just can't see the appeal!"

In response, jd said that she loved Whitney, but admitted, "...you're right, the heroine was TSTL and the hero was a total @$$. I read books with a similar hero and heroine today and they drive me nuts. I've been reading romance for about 15 years and what I enjoyed when I was 15 is not what I like now. The sad thing is even now most books I buy have the same TSTL heroine and the jerk hero. I usually like the jerk but want to throw back the twit."

On top of that, some readers are upset because rewrites and reissues take up so much space, something about which LLB has been talking about since 1996. Quinn explains, "The increasing amount of shelf space that reissues and re-writes take up is maddening. And since Harlequin has decided to glut the market with Nora Roberts reissues, it's even worse. Don't get me wrong, I'm not blaming Nora for this and I love her books. I think it's great that people who can't find these older books will be able to get them now, but releasing so many so close together??? I've been reading romance for years. I have all of this stuff. I need new books. If I want to read the old ones, I head for my shelves (and boxes and bags)."

Reprints that come out in hardback are especially controversial. Raelene says:

'There is one thing that absolutely bugs me, that seems to be becoming very common recently with the well-known romance writers. That is when a romance book formerly available as paper is re-released as hardcover. What a rip-off! And the book is usually not marked as a reprint. I feel like taping a sign to the shelf - 'Go down the street to the used bookstore, you can buy this $24.99 hardcover story for $2.00 in paperback.'"

Some fans, however, love the hardcover reprints, to the extent that they write to publishers and ask them to reissue their favorites in hardback in order to have durable copies of their keepers. As Donita explained, "If I like a paperback of an author that is a keeper, then I write letters requesting over and over, 'please release this in hardcover so I can have it forever.' So... sorry ladies but this is why many of Sandra Brown, Elizabeth Lowell, and Linda Howard's are now coming out in hardcover. I'm not the only one that does this, there are many of us out there. There is nothing like a beautiful hardcover book. Blame us loyal fans."

Livia does like the hardback reprints - but not the way unwary readers are sometimes duped into buying them:

"I'm grateful for the Sandra Brown hardback reprints only because I'm trying my best to collect all her older category romances in hardback as a 'forever keeper' thing. I buy Brown's old Loveswepts as soon as the are released in hardback and I'm starting to have a very nice collection. My concern is for readers not familiar with the original works of certain authors and purchase these hardback reprints thinking they are new stories only to find out they actually bought a book that was originally issued at $2 or $3 paperback. It's unfair of the publisher not to let the reader know in advance that the book has been out before. Some publishers are getting smart enough not to indicate the original print date on the copyright page. It's duping the public. "

Some fans are glad for the hardback reprints because these are the only way they can find a book they've been looking for. Tacat said, "I was thrilled to find a hardcover copy of Sheryl Woods' Temptation at Barnes and Noble for a cover price of $9.95. I have been looking for that book for 2 years in UBS with no luck at all. For $9.95, I got a hardcover, yippee!"

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If it Ain't Broken... (Anne Marble)

Rewrites of older books are even more controversial than reissues themselves. Many readers don't see a need for the author to rewrite the book - if it was a classic the first time around, why rewrite it? For example, Esther didn't like the fact that Janet Evanovich's Full House was updated. She said, "I read the original version and just loved it. Why change a great book?"

In recent years, more and more writers have come under fire for their rewrites, including Catherine Coulter and Elizabeth Lowell. Yes, some people do like the rewritten editions of those books, but many readers simply can't stand them. When AAR Editor Marianne Stillings granted DIK status to To the Ends of the Earth, a re-write of Elizabeth Lowell's The Danver's Touch, much controversy ensued. LLB, who has read many of the original and re-written Lowell books hasn't yet discovered one rewrite that either equaled or surpassed the original.

AAR Reviewer Rachel Potter says, "Coulter mangles her originals too when she gets the urge to rewrite. Her editor should smack her hand if it even starts to edge towards an old manuscript. Some of those early regencies were pretty good, especially if you can stomach the ubiquitous rapist hero. ... One that was good and didn't have a rapist hero was An Intimate Deception. This was rewritten as The Deception, which sucked up the wazoo." LLB, who agrees that many of Coulter's re-writes have been fairly bad, liked The Deception, and I myself gave The Countess, a re-write of The Autumn Countess, a qualified recommendation.

Rachel has spotted some of the problems inherent in both rewrites and reissues.

"I think the problem with reissues is that quite often the author hadn't yet come into the style that her (later) fans recognize, love, and want to read more of. So it's almost guaranteeing disappointment to do reissues.... Coulter did a major style shift when she went to writing full-length historicals. Her Signet books have the Signet Regency feel to them; in style they are similar to Joan Wolf. So if you liked her old style and don't like her newer one, all her rewrites are going to be massively disappointing. And if you like her more recent stuff, those rewrites will probably be more satisfying than the originals were."
What do some other readers think of rewrites? Marjorie has "little patience with rewrites" because "we all look back on things we know we could have done better, but we just have to get on with life. I finally found a used copy of Chandra by Catherine Coulter and compared it to Warrior's Song, the rewrite. The rewrite was a much better book, but... I would have been just as happy to have read a new story in this series left Chandra as a prequel."

This summer Lisa Kleypas' 1992 release, Only in Your Arms, was released as the enhanced When Strangers Marry. The new version received a good review here at AAR, prompting LLB to add as a coda, "I read Only in Your Arms many years ago and traded it immediately after I finished it. I found it very reminiscent of the Rosemary Rogers and Jennifer Wilde books I'd sampled in college. I can't say what's changed. But since AAR Editor Ellen (Micheletti) is pretty tough on that old bodice-ripper style, I'd be inclined to give this reworked version a chance." On the other hand, AAR Reviewer Marguerite Kraft found the new version "fairly boring." The original book is one of her favorites; the new version, she says, with the "'re-imagined' and more politically correct hero and the (now) feisty and mouthy heroine," removed the conflict inherent in the original. She goes on to say, "This is one of my major gripes lately. I really loved Kleypas' first book, Where Passion Leads, but she says she won't reissue it unless she can figure out a way to rewrite it. I'd rather see books not reissued at all than reissued and bowdlerized."

Why are readers so impatient with authors who rewrite their classics? Kay explained her dislike for rewrites in a manner that mirrors Marjorie: "If it's an author I like, I have most likely already read the book. If I haven't, then I have it waiting to be read. I've already spent my money on the story once. I would think that when an author does re-writes on an older book, it takes time and thought. Quite selfishly, I would prefer they spend that effort writing a new story."

Quinn agrees. "I prefer that authors spend their time writing new books, rather that 're-writing' old ones. Especially the authors that have gone to one or two books a year. Summer Games is my favorite Lowell. I did pick up a copy of Remember Summer used but couldn't tell that much difference between the two versions. There was a prologue to set up Cord's reason for watching Raine, but since that was explained during the story, it didn't really add anything. When I re-read it, I go for the original, not the re-write."

However, some fans enjoy rewrites. For example, Raelene does like rewrites. "I sort of like rewrites, as long as they are clearly labeled as such. It's interesting to read the original and then the rewrite, see what the author felt needed to be changed."

Not all rewrites are disliked; as previously mentioned, the revised version of Whitney, My Love has many fans. And then there are the expanded editions of Mary Jo Putney's traditional Regency Romances which never incited the controversy of the Coulter rewrites. Many fans even prefer the The Rake to her original The Rake and the Reformer, although both are much beloved. (Her The Bargain is also an expanded, historical version of the original Regency, The Would-Be Widow). We'd love to know if anyone has a theory about why some rewrites are hated and some are accepted. It's possible the Coulter rewrites were hampered from the start because she was expanding short Regencies, so she had to add more text to get the stories up to historical romance length. In some cases, what she added was what readers regarded as filler. Meanwhile, MJP was expanding her longer Regencies from Signet's Super Regency line, which were nearly the length of a historical romance. But that's just a theory. What are your theories?

Whether the expanded editions are successful or not, many readers want to know why writers put out rewrites of their older books. Eileen Wilks explained rewrites from an author's perspective.

"Often these happen when a publisher decides to reissue an old book and the author wants to either expand the story or fix things she felt she handled poorly in the first place - she feels she's grown and learned a lot and wants to bring the book up to her current standards. For some authors this is a matter of integrity - they don't want a book to be published under their names that is less than the best they can offer readers. Others feel ... that their time is best spent on creating new work; they don't want to rework an old book. Personally, I lean towards the 'create new work' side. I have more stories to tell than I have time to tell them...and I'm not anywhere near as fast as Nora. But I respect the reasons that some authors have for revising old work before it's reissued."

Robin Schone gave another reason an author might want to publish a rewritten edition (her 2001 "director's cut" of Awaken, My Love came six years after the original was published:

"Brutal editing. It's very difficult to see an editor slash your baby to ribbons, then publish it with your (the author's) name on the cover. I understand perfectly why authors rewrite earlier published books. Simply to make it theirs again, to restore the book to what it should have been--and perhaps what it was -- before an editor got hold of it and forced it into a slot with all the recurring snipping and cutting to make it fit a standard mold. Fortunately, this has only happened to me once, and while the actual slicing and dicing was minimal, when the editor actually rewrote a significant portion of a chapter, using her voice instead of mine - well, the book was no longer mine. And when I had a chance to restore it, darn right I took that opportunity."

As for me, I am torn about revised editions. I've seen cases where all the "enhancements" did was pad the book, and others where they made it better. Yet I do not want to see publishers start to put out revised "PC" editions of older romances. What next? Are they going to reissue Patricia Gaffney's To Have and to Hold with a kinder, gentler Sebastian? Gag me.

On the other hand, I have seen other cases where the revisions truly helped the book. On the third hand... Now we're getting into science fiction territory. That's appropriate because an SF publisher made me think about revisions recently. Revisions to classic SF became an issue on SF newsgroups. Baen Books has started republishing the SF novels of the late James H.Schmitz. Although Schmitz isn't that well known among younger readers of SF, he wrote exciting novels, and his books had strong female characters. So you'd think fans would be happy, right? Well, not all of them were. Some were livid because the new editions were revised - both to combine related stories and to make the stories less dated. I'm torn by this because I haven't read the originals and don't know if the revisions hurt the stories. But surely if the new editions gave new fans a chance to discover an author whose books are hard to find, these editions are not a Force of Evil.

A similar controversy happened when Baen started putting out omnibus reprints of Andre Norton's classic SF novels. Some fans were furious when they found out that Baen was making revisions to these stories (some of which have a distinct "Cold War" tone that is very dated). Even when they found out that Andre Norton herself approved of the changes, fans still thought Baen was up to no good. Now that's just being silly and giving Andre Norton very little credit. Personally, I'm glad that these stories are being reprinted and have several on my Palm Pilot. The omnibus editions are a great way to introduce young readers to Andre Norton. Also, I'm sure Norton fans are happy for the chance to buy new copies of the books with intact covers, new cover art, and nice print. (Baen even made some of the Schmitz books available for free in the the Baen Free Library.) Also, these stories come in combined or omnibus editions, so no readers feel ripped off by paying $7.99 for a tiny paperback with one story in it - something romance publishers could learn from.

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Reprints We're Happy to See (Anne Marble)

Though reprints often get us steamed, there are many books we're ecstatic to see reissued - books ranging from Carly Kelly's Libby's London Merchant and Robin Schone's Awaken, My Love to the recent Georgette Heyer reissues. AAR staff did an unscientific poll (in other words, we e-mailed each other) and came up with several books we were happy to see reissued:

  • Judith Ivory's Black Silk (originally published under the name Judy Cuevas);
  • Several of Nora Roberts series titles that have been reissued over the past several years (including her MacGregor titles, the Cordinia books, the Night series, and the Donovan Legacy titles);
  • Jennifer Crusie's series romances;
  • Some of the Elizabeth Lowell reissues;
  • Some of the JAK reissues;
  • Some of the Linda Howard reissues; and
  • Betina Krahn's Just Say Yes (originally released as Passion's Treasure, this is not a re-write).

AAR Editor Sandy Coleman shares that she'd always loved Judith Ivory, but found herself engrossed in the re-print of Black Silk, which, "opened my eyes to those incredible books she published in the 90s as Judy Cuevas. I glommed all her Cuevas books - which, of course, I paid way to much to get - and immersed over the summer in her incredible world. It was delicious." Sandy was also happy to see Roberts' Cordina series reissued this summer; she considers them her favorite series romances of all time.

As for authors such as Crusie, Lowell, and Howard, each of these authors writing changed when they went into hardcover. While there are legions of fans of their newer books, many prefer their older books, particularly their series titles - although in the case of JAK, Lowell, and Howard, there seem to be nearly as many duds as jewels.

AAR's Sandy, who has read romance for a long time, highlighted two powerful reasons that reprints are a good thing - hard to find books and worn-out copies. Many classic romances are out of print and hard to find, and some even fetch high prices from collectors. It's great when those books are put back into print so that long-time fans can finally get a copy that hasn't been read two dozen times and dropped in the bathtub at least once. On top of that, readers who are newer to romance (or new to that author) get a chance to discover books they missed the first time around and that are too expensive to buy used. (Romance is not alone here. A lot of fantasy fans will be happy about the upcoming 2003 reissue of Sorcery and Cecelia, even if it is a hardback.) LLB falls into this category; while she's been reading romance for more than eight years, she didn't initially read series titles and is still making up for lost time.

And let's not forget that reprints are a boon for readers who miss romances written in the golden years of alpha heroes - while Krahn's Just Say Yes isn't an old-fashioned bodice-ripper, her style changed greatly since its release back in 1989. Then there are readers such as myself who have a guilty fascination with classic big misunderstanding stories. Or readers who are sick of romances where every hero is a cop or a Regency duke. Reprints can be a great way to find popular romances that don't fit in today's publishing boundaries.

Often, readers want their favorite authors' older books to be reprinted, and this is what drives the marketplace. Romance and erotica author Emma Holly explains, "Reprints have been a godsend for me, since my publication in romance stirred new interest in my Black Lace backlist, which was steadily going out of print. Despite occasional reader grumbling over buying reprints by mistake or disliking an author's earlier style, I suspect few writers really enjoy having their books disappear from existence. That happens often enough that most of us are delighted by whatever reprints we can get."

The issue of reprints and rewrites is a complicated one. For every reader who would rather see shelf space devoted to new books, there's another reader who welcomes the chance to flesh out a backlist. Rewrites are perhaps more controversial; some readers don't understand why an author would change a "classic." Others, as an example, may not read traditional Regencies but enjoy rewrites as single title historicals. But what about the changes in an author's style? For every reader who prefers an author who reinvented herself there is likely another reader who longs for the old days. Finally there is the question of time, as readers wonder why an author would choose to rewrite an old book rather than write a new one. How do you respond to the issue of reprints and rewrites?

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The Worst of 2002 Romances (Robin Uncapher)

I have a guilty secret. Every once in a while, when I get bored and stuck for something fun to read I go to AAR and read “F” reviews. Yes, I do and I’ll bet many of you do too. Who could not find herself laughing at AAR Editor Marianne Stillings' 1998 review of Connie Mason’s To Tame a Renegade which describes a book where the hero’s horse goes from being a “spirited black stallion” to being a “big gray gelding,” all in one chapter? As Marianne put it “Not only a horse of a different color, but somewhere on that trip down the "main drag," poor horsy lost some very important body parts! I can certainly see why he was no longer so spirited.”

This year Ellen Michelleti awarded an "F" to Ann Major’s Marry a Man Who Will Dance, a book which may fall into the To Tame a Renegade category. The book opens with these immortal words:

"The Harley roared and bucked and writhed under his muscular thighs as wildly as a fresh border whore. And since he was half-Mexican and half-Anglo, and oversexed to boot, Roque Mayo was just the man to know."

I’ll admit that I haven’t read the book. But what I want to know is this. If you are standing in the bookstore, reading the opening pages of a book, what in these lines would make you think that the book was going to be a good buy?

Sometimes when you read a review its not even the reviewer’s comments that convince you that the book is dreadful. Ellen’s review of Wendy Burge’s Love Me Again makes it sound like at least as bad a book as Marry a Man Who Will Dance; all you have to do is read the plot summary to get the picture. In Love Me Again the hero divorces his wife because she is infertile, keeps a string of mistresses and proceeds to stalk the heroine who has remarried to a nice man. Eeeeoohh. All I could think of as I read this was the unknown writers I met at the RWA conference who told me that only “excellent” manuscripts were accepted nowadays.” Oh yeah?

Marianne had her own tough going with a few of this year’s recent books. Her “F” review of Sharon Sala’s Lucky included a love scene quote that had me howling:

"Within the space of a second, Lucky's heart felt like it had shot to the roof of her mouth and then dropped to the region of her stomach . . . His hands slid up her arms and then down, palming her breasts as his thumbs began circling the dark areola surrounding her nipples. Spiral after spiral, he increased the pressure in subtle increments so that when his thumbs finally found their targets and rubbed across the jutting pout of the nubs, she lost every skill she had, including balance . . . "

Strangely worded quotes really tell me that a book might be my worst of the year. AAR's Managing Editor, Blythe Barnhill, for example, gave a "D" to Her Scandalous Intentions by Sari Robbins:

"He was going to shut her up once and for all! He ground his mouth down onto hers, savagely assaulting her sumptuous lips, plunging his tongue deep into her hot open mouth, wanting her to taste his fury."

Yuck.

In the course of reviewing this year, Blythe identified The Last Male Virgin as the worst book she'd read. It looks as though Isle of Lies is worth at least a dishonorable mention. In her review, Blythe indicated that the dialogue reminded her of nothing else than the Coneheads from Saturday Night Live, and gave this example:

"We will need to discuss more of love and see what we can determine."
"But we know little of it."
"Then we must find someone who knows more."
"Does not your husband know more? He was married," Anne said.
"True, he must know much of love, but do men and women think differently of it? This we must determine."

It's easy to see from going through our reviews what our staff's least favorite books for the year have been, but I wondered what readers would say. Judging by comments on our Reviews Message Board, few of our readers actually read many of the "F" books we review. So I asked people on our Potpourri Message Board to tell me what were the worst books they read this year. Many mentioned that the books they listed were not necessarily the worst, but were definitely the most disappointing. This is not necessarily an easy distinction to make; nonetheless, here are some of the books readers listed as their worst for this year. Remember that this is a relatively small sampling that may look completely different when it's time for our annual reader poll, and just to show how differently people judge books, I'm including the AAR grade where applicable:

Lauren BachSlow HandsF
Disappointing after strong debut
Jennifer BlakeWadeNo longer reviewed due to 3 poor grades
Lisa CachGeorge and the VirginDIK
Jude DeverauxForeverF+
Lori FosterToo Much TemptationD+
Melanie GeorgeThe Mating GameF
Sandy HingstonThe SuitorDIK
Michele JaffeThe Lady KillerB-
Michele JaffeSecret AdmirerD
Stephanie LaurensOne a Wild NightC+
Stephanie LaurensOne a Wicked DawnD
Rebecca Hagan LeeEver a PrincessB-
Elizabeth LowellEden Burning
(re-write of Fires of Eden)
D+
Kat Martin'sHot Rain
Diana PalmerDesperadoC-
Andrea PickensThe Banished BrideC
Sharon Sala The Way to YesterdayB+
Deb StoverMulligan's Stew
Sue-Ellen WelfonderKnight in My BedD
Disappointing after strong debut
Chelsea Quinn YarbroHotel Transylvania
(a reissue)

AAR reviewers are on record for their feelings about this year’s worst books and there did seem to be a lot of “F”s this year - along with a surprising number of DIKs. It goes without saying that what a reader or reviewer considers as "worst" (or "best") is subjective and goes to personal taste. (If you are thinking that this sentence sounds like a disclaimer in a prescription drug advertisement I don’t blame you.) One person’s “F” may be someone else’s “C” or “D.” Here’s an example: Donna Simpson’s A Country Courtship earned an “F” from reviewer Shelley Dodge. Among the many things that bothered her about the book was the hero’s somewhat disturbing friendship with a widow of one of the tenant farmers. Despite the fact that this widow had made it clear to him that they were not going to have a relationship, the hero persisted in visiting this widow to the point where Shelley found it creepy. The book was a big disappointment to Shelley, in part because she is a regular Simpson reader and fan.

I also read and found A Country Courtship disappointing. Unlike Shelley, however, I would not have put it in the "F" category. It was a “C-“ for me primarily because the story was dull and because I found the heroine's behavior (running away and pretending she was someone else) downright silly.

A Country Courtship was nowhere near my worst book of the year, but it may well have been my “most disappointing,” mainly because Donna Simpson is such a reliable writer. My worst read goes to a rather obscure series title by Pat Coughlin called The Cupcake Queen.

I had not read Pat Coughlin in years, not since I reviewed Merely Married. That book, though a “D,” was well written enough to stick in my head and give me the impression that it was an anomaly. After all, I’d read her Lord Savage and enjoyed it.

The Cupcake Queen is about a wealthy young woman who, on a bet from her brother, agrees to go live in a small town and support herself. Like many wealthy young women in romance novels Olivia Ashfield is “madcap.” She takes what should be a routine receptionist job at a vet’s office and creates such havoc that she ends up having to live with the hero (an important client of the vet’s).

Is The Cupcake Queen an “F?” Even though I detested the book, I’m not sure because reading the worst of the worst of romance here at AAR makes one hesitate to use the term “worst.” As Blythe wrote in her review of Cassie Edward’s Silver Wing, “Not all F books are created equal. Many start out with a decent plot or semi-interesting characters, only to become bogged down with stupid plot twists or an incoherent writing style. Not so with Cassie Edwards' latest book, Silver Wing, which starts out terribly, ends terribly, and is terrible on every single page in between.”

That’s the thing about reading a Cassie Edwards' Indian Romance. It sets the bar so low that it forever changes your idea of how low the bar can be. Take this quote, used by Ellen in her review of Savage Joy:

"Grace couldn't believe her luck that Iron Nose would actually take the time to cook and eat the rabbit before raping her."

It's hard to top to that.

What's unusual about the worst romance novels are that they can be so funny. There is something irresistibly funny about a terrible romance novel that doesn’t apply to other kinds of books. Can you imagine a group of literary reviewers at the Washington Post World getting a real charge out of a terrible novel? They certainly review some of them Bad literary fiction depresses and bores readers. Bad detective novels frustrate them. Bad Science Fiction often insults readers’ intelligence. But a really horrible romance novel, like a very bad movie, can have you writing a post to a fellow romance reader with the heading, “You have to read this quote!”

Horrible romance novels are often…hilarious. Among romance readers it's an open secret but one they don’t always want to admit to outsiders. It's why readers often check out AAR’s "F" reviews first. (This goes for many of our romance author readers as well, who write to us privately laughing about them.) It's not that these readers (or writers) think that romance novels are stupid. Few of them have ever read the kinds of books that earn “F’s.” There are relatively few of these books (they only account for 5% of our reviews) that you almost have to go out of your way to find them.

Sometimes the problem lies in a premise that wouldn’t work even if Nora Roberts tried it. AAR Reviewer Heidi Haglin seems to have read one of those when she reviewed Katherine Garbera's The Tycoon's Lady. As Heidi wrote in her review, “Angelica Leone runs an agency called Corporate Spouses, which seems to be a cross between a high-class escort agency, a dating service, a charm school, and a cleaning company.” It's difficult really hard to imagine this premise resulting in a great story. What it sounds like is somebody scratching around desperately for an idea.

Sometimes an "F" review is the result of flat cardboard characters built into a plot that seems designed as a framework for love scenes. Nora Armstrong’s review of Nicole Jordan’s Ecstasy, gave me that impression. In that book, the heroine’s evil fiancé “takes her to the gaming hell owned by his brother Kell, drugs the poor girl with an aphrodisiac, and is about to have his way with her, when Kell intervenes, banishing Sean from his house and taking care of his unwilling guest himself.” Nora writes “Naturally, 'taking care' of her involves assuaging her drug-induced sexual urges.” Am I the only one squirming while reading this?

In the course of our conversation about the worst books of the year I pointed out to AAR reviewers that we got to read some books that few other people seem to be reading. “Did anyone ever read Quilting Romances but us?” Quilting romances were a line of romances put out by Jove a few years ago. Given the relative lack of popularity of the Americana romance, this type of niche publishing may seem odd, but perhaps the editor who thought of the idea loved The Waltons. Although there may have been some decent books in this line, I don't recall whether our reviewers read any. Many of the books seemed forced, as though the author was writing the story for the sole purpose of meeting a publisher's writing guidelines.

What makes for a “Worst Book of the Year?” Blythe gave us a list in her review of Deauxville’s The Last Male Virgin. Here is her criteria and some explanation of why that book fits the bill:

It's completely unbelievable.

The name dropping is obnoxious (This includes constant product placement of everything from Brooks Brothers suits to Mercedes automobiles.)

Everyone in the book is TSTL. There are no exceptions.

There is an utter lack of romance.

The book mostly takes place inside the heroine's head.

The language would have been appropriate 50 years ago, but not today.

That women are all portrayed as lust-crazed maniacs who would do anything to "get some."

I've omitted some of Blythe's reasons for giving The Last Male Virgin an "F" because they only related to this particular book, but most of the ones listed struck me as a reasonable yardstick for measuring the worst of the year (or any year).

Out there in the wide world, a lot of literate people who ought to know better, think that all romance novels are trash. They aren’t of course, but just between us, shouldn’t we admit that some are?

And don’t you, every once in a while considering buying a book just because its an F? I’ll admit that I’ve thought quite a bit about buying Wendy Burge’s Love Me Again. The premise is just so odd that it makes me curious. I had the same curiosity about Cassie Edwards and know I would have eventually bought one of her books had I not read one for review.

So what are your worst of 2002? Were they worst because of the premise, the dialogue, the purple prose? I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we'd like to have you consider this time:

this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Are there any reprints you wish hadn't been reprinted? What books by that author (or others) do you think should have been reprinted instead?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Have you ever been fooled into buying a reprint or a revised edition? How do you think publishers should label reprints?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission In the case of revisions, have you ever read both the original and revised edition? If so, which did you prefer and why?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission What do you think of the practice of making minor edits to make older books seem less dated? Would you rather leave them in the original form?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Are you an "AAR meanie" who enjoys reading negative reviews? Does it seem as though you read more clunkers than us, or vice versa?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission What do you think when an author makes a strong debut and follows it up with a bad book?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission There's a considerable amount of fascination whenever we mention that we stop reviewing authors who have received three negative reviews (and no positive ones). What do you think of our policy, which was started in order to save authors the humiliation of many, many D's and F's?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Do you sometimes find it confusing to differentiate between a "disappointing" and a "worst" read? Are both categories important or of equal importance?
this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission Excluding this year, what were the worst and most disappointing romance novels you ever read, and why? How long did they top your personal hall of shame? Now consider this year... what was the worst romance you read? Most disappointing? Was any romance from this year bad or disappointing enough to move to the top of your hall of shame?


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