Treat yourself to the AAR bookbag!

June 1, 2004 - Issue #181

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

We kick off this issue of At the Back Fence with an interview with author Charlaine Harris, whose fourth Sookie Stackhouse novel was recently released. Next is a segment that asks the question: Can a romance be too funny? What follows is a look at romance-only myths. The final segment for this time is all about purple prose. I ask for help in creating another volume for our Encyclopedia of Silly Sex and, more importantly, kick off our eighth annual Purple Prose Parody Contest.

Q&A with Charlaine Harris (Laurie Likes Books & Sandy Coleman)

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In mid-2001 AAR reviewer Jane Jorgenson shared with other AAR staff that she'd just read a book she couldn't recommend highly enough and that she planned to write a DIK Review for. DIK status is not something I take lightly, but her raving over Dead Until Dark was strong enough that I picked up a copy of the book myself and enjoyed it tremendously. Jane (whom I've since realized is separated-at-birth in terms of many things, including books - and accessories) and I conducted a brief Q&A with the book's author - Charlaine Harris - and when she mentioned that Jane Austen was her favorite writer, I decided right then and there that I would continue with the series, a decision that has never caused a moment of disappointment. Instead it has led to a period of anticipation each and every spring as a new book is released in the Sookie Stackhouse series, which the author characterizes as "vampire/romance/mystery."

We reviewed not only the first book in the series, but the second as well. The third was not reviewed at the site, but only because I am no longer "allowed" to review here; my grade for Club Dead was a very strong B+, which was also my grade for Dead Until Dark (the second book - Living Dead in Dallas - earned a straight B from me). I began to look for the fourth book in the series, Dead to the World, a couple of months ago and heard from Harris' publisher shortly thereafter with an offer to send a copy for me to read. I couldn't answer "yes" quickly enough, and when the book arrived in the mail I read it immediately, and just about in one sitting.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Sookie Stackhouse series, it begins very cleverly:

I'd been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.
Ever since vampires came out of the coffin (as they laughingly put it) four years ago, I'd hoped one would come to Bon Temps. We had all the other minorities in our little town--why not the newest, the legally recognized undead? But rural northern Louisiana wasn't too tempting to vampires, apparently; on the other hand, New Orleans was a real center for them--the whole Anne Rice thing, right?
It's not that long a drive from Bon Temps to New Orleans, and everyone who came into the bar said that if you threw a rock on a street corner you'd hit one. Though you better not. But I was waiting for my own vampire.
You can tell I don't get out much. And it's not because I'm not pretty. I am. I'm blond and blue-eyed and twenty-five, and my legs are strong and my bosom is substantial, and I have a waspy waistline. I look good in the warm-weather waitress outfit Sam picked for us: black shorts, white T, white socks, black Nikes.
But I have a disability. That's how I try to think of it.
The bar patrons just say I'm crazy.
Either way, the result is that I almost never have a date. So little treats count a lot with me.
And he sat at one of my tables--the vampire.

Right off the bat you can tell there's an unusual sensibility to this book, in particular, a wry sense of humor. And then there's the author herself mentioning Anne Rice. She doesn't mention Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, though, a series many readers compare to Sookie. In fact, in Jane's DIK Review she recommends Harris' series to those who enjoy LKH's. While it's a seemingly good comparison, in reality the books are as different as apples to oranges. Both series may share some of the "monsters," but Anita is action-packed and gory while Sookie is more character-based, the violence is far less explicit, and that wry sense of humor is diffused throughout the books. Jane wrote in her review of the first book that she was LOL by page twelve, when Sookie is properly introduced to Bill: "'The vampire Bill! I thought it might be Antoine, or Basil, or Langford! Bill!' Laurell K. Hamilton's vampire is Jean-Claude and Anne Rice has Lestat, Vittorio and Armand. Ms. Harris gives Sookie - Bill!"

The new book in the series, Dead to the World marks a departure from the earlier three titles in the series, which was built around a romantic relationship between Sookie and Bill. By the end of the third book Sookie and Bill have broken up, something which some readers found bothersome, but since these are not romance novels, it wasn't really an issue for me. True, I loved Sookie and Bill as a couple, but given that Bill and Sookie live in a small town, they'll no doubt continue to be involved in each other's lives.

As a matter of fact, Bill is out of the country for much of the fourth book, and his "boss," and far more "dangerous" vampire, Eric, plays a leading role. Eric, who owns a vampire bar in Shreveport, tried throughout the first three books to get into Sookie's pants. Although he's gorgeous and sexy, Sookie realizes how dangerous an involvement with Eric would be and has refused thus far to succumb to his charms. But when, at the start of Dead to the World, Sookie finds a naked and amnesiac Eric on the side of the road, everything turns upside-down.

Dead to the World features two sub-plots. The first is Eric and his amnesia. The second is the disappearance of Sookie's brother. How the two merge because of a nasty coven of witches is part of the story; the changing relationship between Eric and Sookie is the rest. What happens when a compelling, gorgeous, sexy, charismatic, black-humored, and dangerous vampire is rendered vulnerable yet remains compelling, gorgeous, sexy, and charismatic? That's the question Harris answers in this book, and the questions Sandy and I put to her revolve around Dead to the World.

Laurie Likes Books: What was your "brief" for this series? In other words, what was your original idea and how did you sell it to a publisher? Also, did you create a chart and/or plan out a progression of stories or has that simply evolved with each new release?

Charlaine Harris: I finished the whole first book before my agent started showing it around. Though I have a history of hard sells, this was the hardest, I think. Only my belief in the book kept him trying. I wrote the book two years before it was accepted, if not longer, and then, of course, it took a year to prepare it for the shelves. Dead Until Dark was finally published in 2001. Now it's in its tenth printing. Since I was never sure [it] would be published, I never charted the course of the series. It's evolving.

LLB: Obviously many readers have compared the Sookie Stackhouse series to the Anita Blake series. Some of the monsters may be the same, but there's a vastly different sensibility between the two series as far as I'm concerned. Talk some about creating a white-trash heroine who reads minds.

Charlaine: I did write Dead Until Dark in 1998, before Laurell's books had reached their present level of well-deserved popularity. The similarity in the books lies in the fact that vampires are a recognized part of society. Other than that, the books are, as you point out, coming from different directions. When I was creating Sookie's character, I worked backwards. My thinking went something like, "What kind of woman would date vampires? Well, not a prom queen; it would have to be a woman who was an outcast among humans, for some reason." So I ended up with Sookie, and I liked her.

LLB: Let me expand on that. Was your original idea "what kind of woman dates vampires?" How did it come to you?

Charlaine: Yes, my first idea was "What kind of woman dates vampires?" As to how it came to me; I'd been thinking about vampires for a while, since I'm a fan of the genre. But I didn't want to have a vampire main character. There are lots of books with vampire protagonists -- well, there are lots of books with female humans who date vampires, too, though most of them are firmly in the romance camp -- but I wanted a very human heroine. So she would have to have a vampire friend, or lover, or both. That's as far as I can go in describing my thought processes, which tend to be on the nebulous side.

Sandy: Something that makes your books unique is that you deal with some pretty dark and scary subject matter, but do it with such a deceptively light touch that the books seem more cheerful than they really are - in direct contrast, as Laurie said, to the Anita Blake series which is always relentlessly dark. How would you describe the flavor of the series to someone who's never read them?

Charlaine: Well, I always call the Sookie books my "humorous southern vampiric romantic mysteries." I love combining the elements from the different genres, and I love writing the humor. Sookie has a very positive character. She's always trying to count her blessings and look on the bright side, since that's what her grandmother taught her to do. She takes interest in everything that goes on around her.

Sandy: Sookie doesn't fit with normal people - something of which she is always overwhelmingly aware. Add to her psychic abilities her lack of confidence in her social standing (which really comes into play in her relationship with Alcide) and it's no wonder she winds up hanging out with dead people. Do you think a more socially confident Sookie would still be messin' with the Undead - especially since getting beaten up on a regular basis seems to be part of the territory?

Charlaine: No, I think if Sookie hadn't been born telepathic, she would be married and have two kids by now. I don't think she would've ended up with Hoyt Fortenberry or JB duRone, but she would've caught the eye of one of her brother's friends while she was still in high school. Sookie's senses of isolation and adventure and curiosity are the factors that push her toward the supernatural world. She doesn't like to beat up people, and she doesn't like to get beaten.

LLB: Dead to the World really takes Sookie into uncharted territory. Bill's gone and Eric's now the Un-Eric. I know that some readers were bothered by Bill's "infidelity" and their break-up at the end of book Club Dead, but since these aren't romance novels I didn't feel that way. Did you worry about reader reaction not only to the break-up, but with Sookie becoming involved with the Un-Eric in this new book?

Charlaine: Nope. Sookie's going to break up and possibly make up. She's starting her dating career late, and she's got to go through a lot of experiences, things that most people go through in high school. These experiences are just part of the courtship and mating ritual. The First Breakup. The Rebound.

LLB: Continuing in this vein, the new book features a far more horny Sookie than we've seen before. Is Sookie's sexuality going to become more full-blown as she becomes more sure of her desirability to men, or at least monsters?

Charlaine: Sookie's sexuality has been awakened, sure; and she's very vulnerable to Eric for several reasons. He's gorgeous, he's always wanted her, and he's in need of reassurance. Sookie will never be at the mercy of her own sexuality, I hope; but she will grow in confidence.

LLB: In creating an Un-Eric, were you at all concerned about his no longer being true to his character? In other words, I think it's gotta be tricky to take such a flamboyant character with some very strong traits and change them so vastly as you did in this new book.

Charlaine: No, I wasn't worried about not being true to his character. Anyone who's lost his memory is going to be insecure and tentative. You'll notice that Eric's confidence increases the more he gets used to his situation. If he'd remained without his memory, he still would once again have become the dynamic and in-charge guy we met in the first book.

Sandy: I've always been intrigued by Eric (as I'm sure everyone with a bad boy thing is) and I loved the very clever way you allowed Sookie to get together with the Big Bad. Still, with Eric being Eric, it can't go on forever. Were you worried about disappointing readers who wanted a happy ending, even though they knew it just wouldn't be possible?

Charlaine: I try very hard not to worry about how readers will react. As you will appreciate, I get lots of mail, both via my website, and on Laurell's website, and just in general. In my long career, I've never had readers chime in as often or as emphatically with what they'd like to see happen. I appreciate their involvement in my work, and it's very flattering. I just figure they'll enjoy the books to come if I write those books in the same spirit, no matter what develops.

LLB: My only true criticism of the book isn't even a criticism of the book, it's that because an entire year went by between it and the previous book that it was hard for me to remember everything that had happened in Club Dead. When writing a series, how do you strike a balance so that continuing readers can be refreshed without getting bored and new readers brought up to speed?

Charlaine: That's a very hard balance to strike, and I can only hope I'm getting it right. For years I've observed how other writers fill in backstory, so I could learn from their mistakes and triumphs. You tell me how I'm doing.

LLB: This is the first hardcover release in this series, and since romance readers are notoriously hard on "authors who go hardcover," talk about what it feels like from a writer's perspective to be told by a publisher that a series has gotten so successful it's time to move it up to the big leagues. It's got to feel wonderful, and yet, do you worry about this type of backlash? Does it exist in the mystery world too?

Charlaine: I did worry about the change to hardcover; in fact, I resisted it. I knew it was an honor and a financial imperative, but I didn't want the books to be less accessible. But when your publisher decided to give you a career boost like that, you really can't say no. Paperback readers gave Sookie such a great start; I hope they continue to support her. I don't think there's as much of a backlash in the mystery world.

Sandy: One of my favorite characters is Sam, Sookie's shapshifter boss at Merlotte's Bar. Any plans to let him take center stage?

Charlaine: I am very fond of Sam, too. He will play a part in all subsequent books, and it may be more central.

LLB: When does the next Sookie book come out and what can you tell us about it? Given that this is a site for romance readers, and though there is always a romantic component for the series even if it's not a romance series, what can we look forward to with Sookie? Bill, Eric, both, neither? And, hypothetically speaking, you've been known to kill off a major character in another series. I haven't read that one and so don't know the romantic dynamics of it. This is something scary for romance readers. Should they worry about that in future books?

Charlaine: I'm working on the next Sookie book right now, and it should come out in May or June next year. The title is not set in stone, yet. I'm about to start a new series for Berkley. I'll keep writing the Sookie books, of course, and I hope to produce two books a year.

I never make predictions about Sookie's romantic future. You may not have met the right man for her, yet. There are lots of books to come.

About killing off a major character - yes, I have been known to do that, and I can't guarantee I won't in the Sookie books. But it's not happening in the next book, and it may never happen. I would certainly never kill off anyone just to upset people. I have to have a good reason, a very good reason.

LLB: Do you foresee an end to the series now or is it something we can expect J.D. Robb life from?

Charlaine: I don't foresee an end to the series. I'll write Sookie as long as people want to read about her, or my imagination dries up.

"Too" Funny? (First Laurie Likes Books, then Robin Uncapher)

Early in 2002 I read Leslie Carroll's Miss Match, which was among the first (if not the first) romance/Chick Lit hybrids on the market. Among the reasons I didn't like the book was that the lead characters didn't converse like real people; they spoke as though they were in a play rapidly tossing off bon-mots, one after the other. Think back to a favorite episode of Sex and the City, where Carrie and her friends are having a meal or drink, and everything out of their mouths is witty and clever. It's fun while it lasts, but were the entire half-hour episode like that one scene it would quickly become ridiculous. Not because it's not necessarily funny, but because it's entirely unreal.

My experience with a couple of more recent releases differs somewhat, yet both books also suffer from a surfeit of humor, something I never thought possible. Let's talk first about Nonnie St. George's Courting Trouble. But in order to do that I need to re-cap my experience interviewing the author earlier this year. It was fun, but it was equally exasperating; as I wrote in my preface to the interview, "After feeling like a straight-laced hero hooked up with a nutty heroine, I decided, with a resigned sigh, that sometimes it's better simply to go with the flow." My only other equally fun but exasperating experience interviewing a funny writer occurred when I interviewed Joel Stein last August. What made both interviews so difficult was that I didn't feel mentally up to the challenge.

When I was in college and dating my husband, his best friend came through Dallas and we went to meet up for a meal. His best friend was a Rhodes Scholar currently working as a sportscaster (he now works as a high poobah at ESPN) on a Texas station and I knew from hearing my husband talk about him that he was absolutely brilliant. When we arrived at the restaurant and sat down to eat the two of them got into a conversation so quick, so funny, and so over my head that all I could was sit there. Had I dared to insert myself in the discussion I'd have been run over by speeding wit.

I had a similar reaction to reading St. George's Courting Trouble. Like its prequel, The Ideal Bride, it was brilliantly written, romantic - but in a different way than most romances are - and filled with interesting characters. But while The Ideal Bride was a DIK for me, Courting Trouble "only" earned a B+. I had just as many pieces of paper stuck throughout the book to bookmark funny passages, but I felt as though I needed perhaps an additional 5 points on my I.Q. to have fully "gotten" all the humor on first read.

I realized this was the case when, on one of our lengthy evening walks, I tried to describe the book to my husband and could not. Describing all the satirical "romance moments" was easy; it didn't take much to explain the humor surrounding the cliche about the best husbands being reformed rakes (the heroine's father is such a reformed rake and he takes to walking with - and using - a stick to prevent suitors from being rakish with his daughters, the fact that dukes are so common in romance England they're almost like Cicadas this spring, and that quirky heroines abound in romance novels:

"Of course, I am assuming she has all the qualifications to become a duchess," his mother continued, still refusing to spontaneously combust. "Intelligence, determination, firm opinions, and a monkey. Well, it doesn't have to be a monkey," Mother said. "I had a python when I met the duke. Any unusual pet will do. Either that or she curses."

What was more difficult to describe was how the author "worked" the hitch in the hero's shoulders so that not only did the heroine seem to love it, but that it's apparently a trait of the men in his family that their shoulders hitch when they fall in love. Because first, you see, I'd have to be able to describe what constitutes a hitch in the shoulder. Then there's the heroine's habit of cursing - not out loud, mind you - and that the hero can always tell when she's thinking one. It doesn't necessarily sound funny when described, nor does her panting when she's feeling lustful, or that she refuses to believe she's in love because she doesn't feel all warm and cuddly about the hero as her sister does about her hero, but it's hilarious - you've got to trust me on this. The entire book is hilarious, and deep down underneath all that hilarity is a wonderful love story about two strong-willed people who consistently try to get the better of the other but are unable to totally succeed because they are so well matched.

But as hilarious and romantic as I found the story, it didn't reach DIK status for me because I wasn't "up to" the characters, and could not entirely keep up with their speeding wit. While many, many, many passages were LOL, in several instances I was forced to read them twice in order to "get" them. Which was similar to my experience with The Royal Treatment, MaryJanice Davidson's latest release.

I knew I was in for a good time when I opened Davidson's book to the prologue. It (and many of the book's chapters) quotes from a biography about the book's heroine published in 2089 - published by "Harper, Zebra, and Schuster Publications." I thought this was a brilliant poke at the publishing consolidation we've witnessed in the past several years and thought it a wonderful example of a small witticism an author can include that only the truly obsessed reader would notice. The book itself, like Davidson's last release, Undead and Unwed, is labeled "romance," but both are misnomers, I'm afraid, that may annoy readers looking for books that are primarily romances. Undead is really a Chick Lit/Vampire hybrid while The Royal Treatment is far harder to characterize; it's like The Addams' Family all sexed up. In other words, it's zany, off-beat, yet touchingly romantic (I happen to think Gomez and Morticia are among TV's sexiest couples) in a non-traditional way. And yet, both books were slightly too smart for me in that I had to re-read passages twice in order for their humor to sink in. And so my grade for it was a straight B (my grade for Undead and Unwed, with more straightforward humor, by contrast, was a B+).

These are my first real experiences with books that lost points simply by virtue of being "too funny," and not "too funny" in a labored way like Miss Match. Have you had this experience? Robin hadn't when I first mentioned it to her, but read on and you'll see some serendipity in action.

First Laurie, now Robin

Not long ago, Laurie and I were talking about the new Nonnie St. George Regency, Courting Trouble. Laurie characterized the book as being almost too smart. She said she felt that, had she been in the room with the characters she would not have been able to keep up, and that that might actually bring her grade for the book down. I wasn't sure I could relate. I generally like being with people who are just a bit ahead of me and, though this might sound conceited in the extreme, it doesn't happen all that often. People who are quick witted are not very easy to find. One of the reasons I enjoy "listening" to the members of the AAR staff on our internal email loop, is that they are such a sharp group of people. I can't tell you how often I read a post from one of them and think, "I wish I had written that." You can say pretty much anything to AAR staff about politics, current events, books and what's happening in Hollywood, and get an interesting answer.

And what surprised me most about the comment was that it came from LLB, who is no slouch and never misses an allusion, or needs a joke explained to her.

What could she be talking about?

Then, in one of those odd coincidences that happen all the time in life (but seem contrived in novels) I read a book that seemed to illustrate exactly what LLB was trying to tell me. It was the newest Jennifer Crusie book, Bet Me. I really liked this book. It's an A- for me and I agree with Rachel's review. But it is so smart, so fast, that it sometimes tired my poor brain out. I found myself putting the book down for a rest. I also felt, as Laurie said, that had I been in the room when these characters were talking, I would have been speechless. They are simply wittier than I can imagine being.

It actually reminded me of a story in Moss Hart's autobiography, Act One. In that book Hart describes writing his first musical comedy, Once in a Lifetime, with George S. Kaufman. He describes a time, not long past, when Broadway shows would "try out" in East Coast cities such as New Haven, Philadelphia and Boston, before going to the big time in New York. The writers would attend each showing of the play and change it based on the reviews and audience reaction. Hart describes how the play initially went over with the crowds in those cities. The audience was in stitches until midway through the third act. Then, regardless of what Hart did to revise the play, people stopped laughing. And, in spite of the fact that people were laughing non-stop for the first two acts, the play got mediocre reviews from the local papers. Hart was at wits end until someone suggested to him that his audience was simply tired. He needed to give them some time to rest and think about the story. Hart fixed the play by adding a scene that was a quiet conversation between the hero and heroine in a railway car. The play miraculously improved and Hart concluded his friend had been right. The audience had needed a rest. Once he gave it to them they were happy to commence laughing until the end of the show.

Having said that I loved Bet Me and think it's the best thing Crusie has written in years. I couldn't get past the first hundred pages of Fast Women and this was a nice return to the funny Crusie. Also, in a refreshing change of pace Bet Me has none of anti-conservative/ anti-business political overtones present in Crusie's earlier work. It even has a hero who is, gasp, an independent businessman!

Bet Me is like Chick Lit but is definitely a romance. One thing that makes it seem like Chick Lit is the emphasis on friendship. Minerva Dobbs, the heroine of the book has two buddies, Liza and Bonnie, who spend a lot of time with her dissecting relationships. These three are the funniest women I've come across in a long time. Reading the dialogue between them is like watching the old Mary Tyler Moore Show with three Rhoda's. Cal, the hero, has two friends himself. Guess what? All three are just as funny as the women! And their humor is very similar. They use a kind of witty clipped acerbic shorthand that watchers of The West Wing in its prime will find familiar. Min's humor reminded me most of Janeane Garofalo in The Truth About Cats and Dogs or of the cynical, observant and funny teenager, Daria in the MTV animated sitcom Daria but the main characters all had great punch lines including the two villains David - Min's ex-boyfriend and Cal's ex-girlfriend (though these two are often unaware of the humor in their lines.)

When I am reading a book I seldom think about the writer and whether she is like the heroine or hero. Romance writers write about their fantasies, which seem rarely to be based on real people. But while reading Bet Me I could not help but wonder what it's like to be a friend of Jennifer Crusie or what it is like to be inside her head. It must be amazing because there is no question in my mind that nobody who was not brilliant could pull this book off. It's a high wire act with each conversation a little hilarious gem. Like a Seinfeld episode one conversation is frequently a set up for a later joke down the road. This by the way, makes the book a bit tough to quote. Many of the jokes would need to be explained in the context of the story.

As I read the book it soon became clear that, to pull off this high wire act, Jennifer Crusie had to invent a world that few live in the 21st Century. Adults in Bet Me don't live like any adults I know outside of a Friends or Seinfeld sitcom, meaning that they all spend inordinate amounts of time drinking and going out to eat in a limited number of places. For example, in the opening chapter of the book, David, Min's boyfriend, dumps her. They are both sitting in a local hangout called The Long Shot. After Min is dumped does she leave The Long Shot? No. She goes and sits with her friends Liza and Bonnie and the three sit hashing over what has happened and giving David (who also does not leave) sidelong glances. David begins a conversation with Cal, the hero, and bets him that he could not get Min to go out to dinner with him. In the meantime the three women check out Cal and recommend that Min go out with him. After Min and Cal have left on a very funny dinner date Liza and Bonnie decide to check out Cal by making the moves on his two friends Tony and Roger, who immediately comply by pairing off with the girls. At the same time, in the very same bar, Cynthie, Cal's ex, sits down to a conversation with David, Min's now ex, and they hash over how to get their exes back. (David had dumped Min as a way of pressuring her for sex.)

Throughout the book all of these eight people spend an inordinate amount of time at The Long Shot and at a restaurant Emilios, which is owned by Cal's ex-roommate.

Another thing that enables Jennifer Crusie to pull off her highwire act is that virtually everyone in the book, male and female, loves to dissect the ins and outs of romantic relationships. Cynthie, Cal's ex is on the radio as "the dating guru" has dissected the typical romantic relationship into a series of stages including infatuation, attachment etc. In one early conversation she explains that, "My studies have shown that the process of falling into mature love happens in four steps." Though Cynthie is the dating guru of the bunch virtually all the character seem to have similar prejudices about characterizing the dating behavior of men and women. And, as in Sex and the City, almost all of them have lots of ex-lovers to illustrate their points. ("I once dated a guy who...")

All of this interacting in a very small number of places makes Bet Me feel staged. It reminded me a little bit of high school where so much drama happens in a limited number of places (the cafeteria, study hall, behind the bleachers) mainly because high school kids spend their time in a confined area. As I read this I found myself wondering if it bothered me. It didn't really but it was a bit like watching a 1930s screwball comedy. You had to consciously make the effort to suspend disbelief.

People in this book seem to have a lot more control over their social lives than I would have thought. For example, when Liza and Bonnie decide to make the moves on Tony and Roger (Cal's two friends) the outcome is a given. Unlike in real life where one or both of the guys might have been uninterested, Tony and Roger seem to be pre-programmed to respond to women who know what they want. Watching Liza and Bonnie in action reminded me of those old Seventeen Magazine articles "How to Get A Boy To Ask You Out," in which the male of the species was depicted as completely helpless to techniques like "ask him questions about himself," or "laugh at his jokes."

All of this has the beginning of Bet Me feeling very cynical indeed. Everyone in the book has an agenda. Min wants a date to her sister's wedding. Cal wants to win a bet. Liza and Bonnie want information on Cal. Tony and Roger are victims waiting to be exploited. Cynthie wants Cal so she can appear with him in a photo on the back of her book. David wants to pressure Min for sex and marry her as she is "perfect wife material."

What makes the book fun is that very slowly Crusie has the agendas fall apart, even as some of the participants fall in love. Bonnie and Roger, both sweet people and romantics, go down first falling madly in love and refusing to apologize for it. Cal and Min watch them with both envy and worry but of course, in the end, fall in love themselves. In fact the very cynical start to Bet Me makes the romantic ending more romantic. Unlike in Chick Lit where the reader might wonder how long the hero and heroine will stay together, Crusie's book makes in pretty clear that Min and Cal are happily ever after for life.

I read Bet Me in about a day and a half. When I finished I was exhausted and had two thoughts. First I wished that there were more books around that were as witty and fun as this one, than I realized I wouldn't want to read any of them right away. My brain was too tired. I asked the AAR staff what they thought, and Rachel Potter answered that while it didn't necessarily seem as though the "people were too witty to be believed, the dialogue did have a bit of a scripted feel to it." She said that this wasn't a problem for her because "Crusie played with reality a bit in a wink, wink, nudge, nudge 'go along with it' kind of way. I thought maybe she was writing this one with Buffy on the mind," adding that she sometimes feels as though "Dorothy Sayers' characters are a little too witty, smart, and erudite to be believed," but as she likes her books, she's just gone along with it.

After finishing Bet Me, I picked up Courting Trouble. A few pages in I knew that I would love the book but that it was just not the right time to read it, in the same way that you might not want to watch two Marx brothers movies in a row. Jane Jorgenson, who reviewed Courting Trouble, commented on this similarity: "One of the things I thought of mentioning [in my review] was how much it reminded me of Bet Me, which I loved." Jane's only quibble with St. George's new book is that "the dialogue is so witty and fast that I needed a pause now and then. It's almost too much of a good thing and I think that [the author] needs to dial it back just a hair.

AAR reviewer Leigh Thomas had a similar comment and said this about Bet Me: "I agree with you on needing to take a rest during it though. I think that's why my final grade was a B+. It wore me out. I never quite got to the point of disliking it, but I was kind of ready for it to be over by the end."

Yes! That was it. I was ready for it to be over, but even though that was the case, I could not stop reading it and take a break. Most of all I wanted somebody to read it to, somebody who would laugh at all these great lines.

There are not many romance novelists who affect me this way. I remember having the same reaction to books by the writer Peter Devries, who wrote some hilarious books in the 1970s and also with some of the Regencies by Sheri Cobb South. To this day I find Miss Darby's Duenna one of the funniest books I have ever read and I recommend it highly to anyone who likes Courting Trouble. Still the book earned a B from me rather than an A, mainly because it was not quite romantic enough to earn a DIK. I still remember that my main problem in reading Miss Darby's Duenna was that I kept wanting to read it to someone who understood the jokes, meaning Sheri Cobb South's very funny send ups of traditional Regencies.

So now I am wondering what you think. Have you read either the Crusie or the St. George? Did you have the same feelings or different ones? Is a romance novel ever "too funny?" Do you ever get distracted by a book mainly because you keep wanting to read it to other people, or underline the funny parts?

I look forward to hearing what you think.

Romance-Only Myths (Laurie Likes Books)

Earlier this year on our Potpourri Message Board Kerstin asked which myths readers seem only to read about in romance novels, and further, asked which ones readers like and dislike. Given some of the myths mentioned earlier in the column that Nonnie St. George lovingly poked at in her newest book, I thought this was a good time to report on that thread, and to open it up for further discussion. But before I do, I'll share with you one myth I see, and how I feel about it: Heroines who refuse monetary assistance in raising their children. I'm against it, I'm against it in the strongest of terms.

Whenever I read a romance, most often a contemporary romance, featuring a heroine who refused money or plans to refuse money to help raise her children, I want to walk inside the book and slap her across the face. I don't know what planet such women live on, but it's not planet Earth, where simply keeping your growing children in clothing and shoes that fit, food on the table, and a safe place to live is for most of us a major struggle. To refuse help out of pride, self-pity, whatever, is no more than the worst sort of self-righteous selfishness I can imagine. Why it seems to occur in romance novels as often as it does amazes and infuriates me. There...I said it...whew, I feel better now.

On the flip side, a myth I rather enjoy is that the hard work in a love relationship all seems to happen before the admission of love, the commitment, and the marriage. The HEA then follows seamlessly and effortlessly. Totally unreal, yes, but belief in this myth allows me to close a romance with a feeling of hope.

And now, on to some of the other myths shared by our readers. Our readers have strong feelings about many of the negative myths, and I hope that when it's time to post to the message board we can post titles that both support and refute each myth, as well as add other myths:

Kerstin: "Forced maternity through rape is actually a very good and desirable thing, instead of adding severely to the trauma of the rape victim the child is always a great consolation and the woman loves her baby even more dearly than if she/he were conceived through a loving, consensual act. Never for a moment the woman resents her pregnancy or her baby, considers abortion or adoption and the child resulting from such a horrific crime is inevitably a coddly angel.

"First sex is always a great and earth-shattering experience (wouldn't that be wonderful? LOL )

"Heroes always find the heroine irresistible and desirable, no matter how bad her day, how pale her skin and unruly her hair or how skinny or fat she has become through previous experiences. They always think her scent wonderful, no matter how unrealistic that is under the circumstances. He never ever thinks, 'Oh, she really needs to shave her legs' or 'I find the way her bones stick out now rather unappealing' or 'That perfume she wears is so horrible!'

"Heroine can have two or more children and looks trim as well without aerobics and/or liposuction and breast surgery. The children she produces are inevitably wonderful individuals."

Brandy: "The father of my baby is from old money and his parents are snobs. Of course he doesn't [didn't] want the baby, but mean, rich, nasty grandma and grandpa want to take my baby from me and raise it in 'their society.'"

Laura: "Hero/heroine runs a huge conglomerate or has another normally time consuming career, but can leave work on a whim, and take days off whenever they want." (note to Laura: I call this the "fake career," and it inevitably reminds me of a Seinfeld riff about working in an office. Jerry can only envision people walking through hallways telling each other "hello" because he hasn't a clue what goes on at a desk job - feel free to extrapolate to lawyers, doctors, etc.)

PB: "The one I hate the most: The contemp heroine who has a high-powered career in the big city will be happy living in a small town in the middle of nowhere, giving up her career to have babies with the local sheriff, and letting every nosy old neighbor peek in her windows all they want.

"The myth I like the best is that even the slightly pudgy, plain girl who wears glasses can find a hot stud who will be enthralled by her mind and sense of humor and help her unlock her Inner Sex Goddess."

Fair: "If you are strongly sexually attracted to someone, that is your one true love."

JMM: "Police officers who can't control their lust and jump the bones of witnesses and/or suspects...and never face Internal Affairs.

"All women must love and forgive and obey and take care of their parents, (no matter how brutal and cruel and abusive said parents have been) or they are not Good Women."

Maggie: "Stubborn and smart are really the same characteristic.

"Asking direct questions is a stupid way to resolve issues. Far better to misunderstand and base all your responses on that one big misunderstanding."

Do you find it interesting that most of the myths listed are negative ones as far as readers are concerned? I can't say that I've come across each of these myths or that I have the same feelings about them as readers do, but clearly some hot buttons are pressed here. One of the negative myths, though, is one about which I have similar feelings, and it'll play a part - I hope - in what's introduced in the next segment.

Purple Prose & the 2004 Purple Prose Parody Contest (Laurie Likes Books)

Most of you know that high among my romance novel pet peeves is the use of purple prose. Whether in prose describing love scenes, the dialogue between two individuals, or even the style of writing which attempts to dramatize the prose through the use of ellipses, exclamation points, italics, and/or short sentences/paragraphs, purple writing almost always lowers my enjoyment of a romance.

Over the years we've not only featured discussions of purple prose in this column, we've put together an Encyclopedia of Silly Sex, and in 1999 an AAR reviewer created The Purple Dictionary of Historical Romance. We've also conducted annual Purple Prose Parody Contests since 1997, and today we begin the eighth annual PPP Contest.

The PPP Contest is one of my favorite features at AAR in that it showcases the tremendous talent, creativity, and humor of our readers, authors, and review staff. One of my favorite features at AAR is our annual Purple Prose Parody Contest, which opens today for 2004 and is our eighth annual contest. Those unfamiliar with the contest should read entries from earlier years (use the PPP link in the previous sentence), and those who wonder whether or not they should submit a parody themselves should know everyone who does contribute enjoys themselves immensely.

The contest's original brief was simply to write a love scene featuring as many euphemisms and cliches as possible, and readers and authors responded to my throwing down the gauntlet with my own short and suggested parody. The winner that first year was author Marsha Canham, who took my original idea and transformed it brilliantly, setting the stage for the level of entries seen every year since.

Although AAR staff are not eligible to win the yearly prize (and if an AAR entry receives the most votes it will be deemed a "co-winner" with the reader or author who receives the most votes), the contest has showcased their skills for many years; former AAR reviewer/editor Marianne Stillings, if I'm not mistaken, shared her Parody In Death (co-winning) entry with prospective agents a couple of years ago, and while I'm certain she didn't land a three-book deal with Avon because of it, it's nonetheless impressive. And last year, after several wonderful entries, Blythe Barnhill was voted a co-winner for her homage to Mary Balogh, Once a Ho.

Interestingly enough, several AAR Reviewers came to us via their entries. Claudia Terrones, for instance, who reviewed at AAR for many years, was asked to join as a result of her 1999 entry, with its twisted ending.

We've tried to up the ante every year of the contest, in order to keep it exciting and fresh. We encourage more than love scene parodies and have asked for parodies of epilogues, Regency ball scenes replete with watery lemonade and the old hens who grant vouchers at Almack's, the first meeting in a "love at first sight" romance, a Big Mis or Big Secret, and "morning after" scenes. Other scenes of interest might include the prologue of a romantic suspense novel, a skanky villainous sex scene, or a draft proposal of a category romance featuring such things as secret babies, cowboys, virgins, amnesiacs, virginal sex therapist librarians, etc. We also encourage homages to favorite romance authors - these have proven very popular over the years - as well as the "merge-matic" concept we first suggested some years ago. We still haven't received a parody entitled Lord St. Claire's Undercover Angel (anyone game to write a parody featuring a rake who decides to dally with a virginal arthritic spinster who shocks him with her skill beneath the sheets?) or Whitney, My Savage Love, but I remain hopeful that this will be the year!

Our suggested additions for this year include the use of some of the myths seen in the segment above, most specifically the contemporary heroine giving up her high-powered career in the big city to live in the middle of nowhere and birth those babies. And, given the extraordinary success of Chick Lit, we also encourage Chick Lit parodies. Remember that parodies work best when they come from love rather than hate; a Chick Lit parody by those who enjoy the novels will mostly likely come across better than a Chick Lit parody written by someone who doesn't like the genre.

Further information on this year's contest can be found here, but the bare bones are as follows:

Entries cannot exceed 1,500 words and must be received no later than midnight, June 28th via
The subject line of your email must read "2004 PPP Contest"
Your email must also include your name and snail mail address (required to mail you your prize should you win)
Entries will be posted as received until midnight, June 28th
Voting begins on June 29th and continues through midnight, July 13th
The contest's winner will be announced on July 15th

This year's prize is a very "girlie" one - the Bare Escentuals 4-piece color kit in Evening Bag, an $86 value that includes: "cupcake" glimpse (for the eyes); "celebrate" lip gloss; "flowers" blush; a tapered blush brush (BE brushes are wonderful!); and a kicky little pink silk evening bag, all delivered to you in a pink hat box. (I'm a BE fanatic and bought an extra kit to award for this contest.)

I mentioned earlier that in the past we've created the Encyclopedia of Silly Sex, and I'd like to add another volume to it if possible. In recent weeks I've read some books featuring some amazingly silly sex, and I'm sure you've come across some silly sex scenes yourself as well. Nicole Jordan's reissued (and partly re-written) The Lover, for instance, featured some amazingly purple prose in love scenes and in dialogue, and in the last issue of this column I mentioned Emma Holly's writing, and in specific, the heroine of her first historical comparing the hero's penis to a "puppy...wriggling for a treat."

Interestingly enough, Holly came up in a recent discussion among AAR staff as regards love scenes and the "p-word." Rachel Potter, who quite enjoyed Shannon McKenna's Behind Closed Doors, had some trouble with a love scene in her newest book. In it the hero tells the heroine: "I want to lick up your lube until you melt into a lake of hot, yummy girl juice. I want to dive into it and wallow in it all night long. My face between your legs. My tongue shoved into your p*ssy."

I actually have less of a problem with this snippet than I do with many other snippets, but the "p-word" invariably makes me laugh for some reason, and I immediately shared the snippet from Emma Holly's Beyond Innocence with Rachel to illustrate that though the p-word makes me LOL in both, there's definitely a difference when Holly uses it. It's simply more silly.

"I'll need to touch you to show you what pleasure is. I'll need to put my fingers between your legs and stroke your little p*ssy."

"M-my p*ssy?"

In spite of himself, he smiled. What an innocent she was...

(skip two pages)

"This is your p*ssy," he said, low and husky. "This and the secrets that lay within. I'd like to touch them if you'd let me. I'd like to show you the magic they can do."

Help me create a new volume for our Encyclopedia of Silly Sex by sharing the silliest sex snippets you've come across on the ATBF Message Board.

Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we'd like to have you consider for Part I, the majority of which are not related to my library specifically ('cause wouldn't that be egotistical?):Here are the questions we'd like you to consider this time:

After reading our interview with Charlaine Harris, Robin Uncapher, who generally has little interest in vampire stories of any sort, said she now wanted to read one of the Sookie books. If you are similarly a non-vampiric reader, did the interview change your mind?

Are you already a reader of the Sookie series? How would you grade each of the books, and what do you like best about the major characters?

Are you "wed" to Sookie ending up with Bill, or, because she's gotten a late start in this dating thing, do you simply see him as her "first boyfriend?" Where would you like to see Sookie and Eric's relationship go, and are there any other "monsters" you've read in these books you'd like Sookie to become involved with, such as Sam?

Can a book, a romance in particular, simply be "too funny?" Let's look at both options, the first being a book that tries too hard to be funny and as a result seems artificial. The other option is a book that is simply so funny and smart you feel you can't keep up. Have you had either or both experiences?

Which romantic comedies have you read that are far more successful as comedies than as romances? Did this lessen your reading enjoyment, and if so, by how much? And, which romantic comedies have you read wherein the romantic moments are truly there, you just have to pay careful attention because they're oh-so-subtle?

Let's talk about romance-only myths. Are any of those listed among those you like or dislike intensely? Which other myths occur to you as being "romance-only?"

Do you notice that most romance-only myths are ones you find irritating or are myths found in romances more balanced, so that there are an equal number of irritating and enjoyable myths?

Let's name some names now. If you can list a title of a book that either proves or refutes a listed myth, please do so. And if you've added a myth of your own, please also provide a title.

Help LLB create a new volume of the Encyclopedia of Silly Sex! Post a snippet of silly sex to the message board!

Check out the details in this year's PPP Contest!

 

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books, Charlaine Harris,
Robin Uncapher, & Sandy Coleman

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