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Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

February 15, 2003 - Issue #155

Reviewer's Choice by Blythe Barnhill

The Reviewers' Choice poll is a relatively new AAR tradition that I have really come to look forward to. Our staff weighs in all year with opinions on the latest books, and we often get into spirited debates about their relative merits. But it's always fun to see what people choose when they have to narrow their choices down to one favorite book of the year. There is often a little grumbling about having to choose only one, but somehow we manage.

LLB also announces the winner in our annual Isn't it Romantic? Contest at the end of this column, which is presented in two pages instead of one to speed load time.

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The big news this year? Diversity. Last year the top two books got 11 votes between them, with the winning book (Suzanne Brockmann's Over the Edge) receiving votes from seven reviewers. 23 staff members participated, and their votes were divided among 16 books. This time around, 28 staff members voted - for 23 different books. Only three books got more than one vote, and although we have winners, none could be called an overwhelming favorite. This change could be interpreted a variety of ways, but my optimistic view is that there were a lot of strong contenders this year. There were some great romances out there, and our list of favorites has something for everyone.

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Three of us chose series romances as our favorites this year. Technical editor Sandi Morris out-reads almost all of us, so she has quite a pool to choose from.

It was tough for her to make a choice, and she mentioned several great reads, but in the end went with Sharon Sala's The Way to Yesterday, mostly because it made such a big impression on her that she's still thinking about it. Other series titles she really enjoyed include: Lovers and Other Strangers by Dallas Schulze, The Bride Fair by Cheryl Reavis, Take Me by Cherry Adair and The Notorious Mrs. Wright and Christmas on Snowbird Mountain by the recently deceased Fay Robinson.



Reviews editor Jennifer Keirans also made a series romance her choice. Brockmann's Out of Control was her second choice, because she found it "fun, funny, well-written, and romantic." But her nod went to The Older Woman by Cheryl Reavis. "It knocked my socks off. It was short, it was sweet, and I just loved it."



Reviewer Leigh Thomas made Harper Allen's The Night in Question her choice. She had this to say about her decision: "The book didn't overwhelm me the first time I read it. It isn't the best book she's written, and I liked her other 2002 release a bit more on the first read. But it's stuck with me in a way that the others haven't. It's the only one that I've been compelled to reread and I like it more each time. It works so much impact into such a little book and got to me on an emotional level few others did." Runners up for Leigh were Head Over Heels by Susan Andersen, Purity in Death by J.D. Robb, and Breathing Room by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

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Many favorites this year were contemporaries, with one vying with an historical romance as "most favored." We'll talk about that book later, as well as some other contemporary romances, but for now let's look at five that each received one vote.

Reviewer Marguerite Kraft read a number of contemporary romances in 2002 that tried to be funny, but ended up with too many "dumb elements." Her choice for the best of 2002? Susan Andersen's Head Over Heels, mostly because she thought it worked so well as a romantic comedy. She added, "It was funny without being excessively farcical. My runner up is Meggin Cabot's She Went All the Way."



New reviewer Nicole Miale was hard-pressed to make just one pick. She finally revealed her choice of Rachel Gibson's Lola Carlyle Reveals All because she found it to be a "strong contemporary in a weak year," and because she so thoroughly enjoyed both the hero and heroine. Others she'd particularly recommend include Glenna McReynolds' River of Eden, Madeline Hunter's Stealing Heaven , Lisa Cach's George and the Virgin, and Patricia Rice's Almost Perfect. And she, along with reviewer Kelly Parker, also strongly recommends Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones for those looking for a more literary read.



Reviews Editor Ellen Micheletti had a great reading year, and mentioned a number of books as worthy competitors for best romance. But her favorite of the year was Stef Ann Holm's Girls Night. Holm has been writing well-received Americana romances for years, and Ellen simply loved her contemporary debut. Ellen was "charmed from the first line" and "loved the hard-working heroine, her delightful daughters, and the fact that the hero had a real moral problem to face." She also found the secondary senior citizen romance "sweet and touching" and found that the "community came alive in the book - I felt like I knew the people who lived there."

Ellen's in the unique position of having written more reviews for AAR than anyone else (a distinction she's always had, but she recently passed the 365 review mark - wow!). Her short list also includes several titles others on our staff adored, including:
  • Mary Balogh's A Summer to Remember. Ellen found this to be as good as her best traditional Regencies, featuring wonderfully charming likable characters.
  • Cheryl Reavis' The Older Woman, which many on our staff would likely never have read had Ellen not recommended it so highly, and a stand-out because the book highlights the hero's POV.
  • Jo Beverley's Hazard, which featured a scene Ellen enjoyed so much she had to go back and read it again. She added, "The scene in the theatre where the actor's lines are mirroring the feelings of Anne and Race is a masterpiece of writing."
  • Carla Kelly's The Wedding Journey, because "Kelly can make good, decent, and kind men as interesting and compelling as the most rakish bad boy."

Like some of our other reviewers, Heidi Haglin found herself enjoying non-genre choices like Kushiel's Chosen by Jacqueline Carey. Her favorite romance was harder for her to pin down. She loved Anne Gracie's The Honorable Thief and Rachel Gibson's Lola Carlyle Reveals All, but she ended up choosing Teresa Hill's Edge of Heaven as her favorite romance. She had this to say about her choice: "This book featured very imperfect characters with a lot of emotional depth and realism, which I found quite appealing."



LLB spent much of last year discovering older buried treasures and exploring the Young Adult section, but she did manage to find some gems among 2002 books - Mary Alice Monroe's The Beach House and Christina Dodd's My Favorite Bride. But her favorite for 2002 was Nora Roberts' Chesapeake Blue, which inspired a "mini-Roberts glom" over the summer. It was this mini-glom, as well as revisiting Cam and Anna, that put Roberts' book at the top of her list; she admits that as much as she loved Seth and Dru, she was "tempted to vote for Cam and Anna as favorite couple of the year."

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LLB's mention of The Beach House brings us to our next book because like Monroe's book, the choice of my Pandora's Box co-columnist Linda Hurst is more of a women's fiction/romance hybrid than a straight romance.

Linda is surely one of the fastest readers on our staff; in peak times she will read a book a day. This year was somewhat "off for her," as she "only" read 200 books. She gave top honors to Emilie Richard's Prospect Street because "the relationships between the characters blew me away." She also mentions River of Eden by Glenna McReynolds, Light in Shadow by Jayne Ann Krentz, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton by Julie Quinn, and Honky Tonk Cinderella by Karen Templeton as books that really stood out for her.

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There were also several favorites among our staff in the world of historical romance - seven, to be precise. We'll talk about the first six now.

Robin Uncapher, ATBF co-columnist, chose Mary Balogh's A Summer to Remember. She said, "To me it was a real throwback to her traditional Regencies (a comment echoed by Ellen Micheletti), and the best thing she's written in ages. The heroine had such a flair for using Regency conventions to her advantage - the way an Austen heroine would have." She added that Mary Jo Putney's The Spiral Path was a close second, and the best book she too wrote in years. Judith Ivory's Untie My Heart and The Fortune Hunter by Diane Farr were on Robin's short list.



For reviewer/pollster Shelley Dodge, Julia Quinn's Romancing Mr. Bridgerton took top honors. She "absolutely loved it," and found "Colin's character developed so well over the course of the book that I was completely caught up in their relationship." Shelley had read Quinn before the Lady Whistledown series with reasonable success, but this series impressed her because "her books are now compelling on a deeper level than just as Regency comedies." The difference? Character development. Two runners-up for Shelley are two SF/F novels with romantic subplots - I Dare by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, and Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair.



Like many readers in 2002, reviewer Megan Frampton read a lot of books that were published in previous years. Of the eligible romances she read, her favorite was Edith Layton's Devil's Bargain. Oddly enough, she doesn't consider the book to be Layton's best effort, but for her it was better than any other 2002-published romance.

New reviewer Donna Newman, who usually doesn't go for futuristic romance, picked up Susan Grant's Contact by mistake; it ended up being a happy accident. She also enjoyed MJP's The Spiral Path and Julia Ross' The Seduction, but in the end was bowled over by Judith Ivory's Untie My Heart.

Stuart was Donna's favorite hero of the year, and though she realizes there were some who didn't care for the long, drawn-out scenes, she "savored them - the words, the descriptions, the detailed look inside their heads." She added, "Stuart's anticipation about the ease of seducing Emma because of his higher social position and importance to her 'employer' was something I really liked... for the first time I truly 'understood' the POV of a privileged nobleman and his utter certainty of success."



Reviewer Jane Jorgenson chose Tracy Grant's Daughter of the Game, an historical romance/mystery that several other reviewers enjoyed this year. She knew it was a favorite when she read it in hard cover from the library - then decided she had to have it for her own once it came out in paperback. Honorable mentions for Jane included No True Gentleman by Liz Carlyle, Final Stand by Helen Myers, and My Favorite Bride by Christina Dodd.

I'm usually very decisive when filling out my annual reader poll, but this year I delayed for a week as I tried to decide between my two favorites. I found this to be a strong reading year in general, and I enjoyed some already-mentioned favorites like A Summer to Remember and Untie My Heart, which was the first Ivory I read - though it won't be the last. I was also very encouraged by Wendy Lindstrom's Shades of Honor, which was a DIK for me and one of the best American Historicals in recent years. But the two books that had me wracked with indecision were Diane Farr's Duel of Hearts and Carla Kelly's Wedding Journey. I simply loved the selfish hero and heroine of Duel of Hearts both of whom think want to marry biddable types - until they fall for each other. And I adored the shy, honorable hero of The Wedding Journey. Jesse's eventful travels showcased his honor and bravery, and it was wonderful to see the nice guy get the girl.

Forced to follow my own rules, I ended up going with The Wedding Journey. Heroes like Jesse don't come along every day, and he was an excellent example of a true Beta hero whom no one could accuse of being a wimp. In recent years my votes for best book have gone to contemporaries, but I think of myself as an historical reader at heart. I was glad to see such a strong field of them this year, and happy to cast my "best" vote for a traditional Regency - a first for me.

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Click the button on the left to continue to page two of the column (it's a jump link) where you'll find the rest of the year's winners - including the big ones - and questions for the MB, as well as the link to the MB)