Treat yourself to the AAR bookbag!

January 1, 2005 - Issue #193

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Happy New Year to one and all! On the first of the new year I like to be reflective about my previous year's reading experience, and this year is no exception. The reason to share my own experience is not because it's special in any way to anyone but me, but because I think it'll help all of you think about your own reading year just passed. So when you look at the various tables, don't think about how anal I am in compiling all the data, just think about how your own tables would look if you were OCD enough to make them. On an adjunct page you'll read about the books I most enjoyed during 2004.

Following my look back, AAR's own Leigh Thomas brings you another in our series of "Authors at Their Best" segments. These segments have really captured the imaginations of our readers and I'm sure this discussion of Anne Stuart will do the same. Be sure to let me know if you would like to do an "Authors at Their Best" segment for us.


Reading Reflections - Oh, What a Difference a Year Makes! (Laurie Likes Books)

When I wrote about my 2003 reading, words like "pitiful," "non-reading," and "bummed" were bandied about, and I set myself a goal to read at least 100 books in 2004. To do that I calculated that I would need to read at least eight books a month - or two books per week. Looking at it that way it didn't seem nearly so daunting.

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I got off to a rip-roaring start; if I'm not mistaken, I read nearly twice that in January, and by the end of February I'd finished thirty or so books. Each time I finished a book (until I reached the magic number) I'd amaze my husband by giving him the tally. Neither of us could remember any time in recent history - other than when we were on a "lie on the beach and read" vacation - that I polished off this many books in a week. It felt wonderful quite frankly, and also addictive. Every time I finished a book I restlessly started another.

As the year progressed and my tally reached higher and higher and it looked as though 100 books would happen with months to spare I began to relax, but didn't stop reading. It was such fun! I hadn't gotten this much enjoyment out of reading - the act of reading, itself - in years. I was already 3/4 of my way to the 100 book goal by July, and when I "discovered" the joys of historical Western romance I read over a dozen in short order.

Just as I was ready to hit my 100th book of the year, though, I couldn't find any book I wanted to read. The number got in the way of my ability to read and it took me a good week to finally read that hundredth book. That happened on September 1st. While the book wasn't particularly good, it got me over the hump and I continued to read and read and read - both new books and re-reads of all-time favorites as I'd planned in mid-September...until The Real Deal came along around the first of October. It was the only full-length book I read all month, and when I say that I mean I read it all month long, over and over and over.

Our family went into crisis mode around the third week of October and Monroe's book provided me a great deal of comfort, but even before that I could not stop re-reading The Real Deal. In my entire history as a reader I can not remember obsessing about a book; I can't fully explain it, but I simply went with the flow and reveled in my enjoyment of it. I read some romantica in October, and in November I read a great deal more romantica - another sub-genre I'd never really read in the past. Turns out I was right about myself: I like short story romantica more than I like full-length romantica. While not an unsuccessful glom, it wasn't exactly successful either.

I read a surprising 25 short stories in 2004. Most were traditional Regencies or romantica. My conclusions? That although traditional Regencies perhaps lend themselves to the short story format better than other historicals, my results with them were nonetheless mixed - as many were C's for me as were B's. If you think about it, because the focus of trads is on character and relationship, a good chunk of this can really occur in 70 or so pages when the issue of sex isn't around to eat up the word count. It makes equally good sense to me that romantica would be something I'd like in the short format because a little of that goes a long way, at least for me. This is in theory, though - the reality didn't quite work that way. Turns out that a very little of that goes a long way for me. One thing about novellas, though, they're short enough that even if they're mediocre, you're already on to the next one.

By the end of 2004 my tally of books read for the first time was 135, but having decided in mid-September to actively re-read more than usual, I also re-read thirteen books. 11 were all-time favorite romances (and that doesn't take into consideration the 100 times I re-read The Real Deal) - those re-reads are not included in the 135, btw. The vast majority were Garwood re-reads; I was greatly inspired by Cindy Smith's "Authors at Their Best" segment in the December 1st ATBF, so much so that The Secret surprised me upon this particular re-reading and may move up on my list of all-time favorites and bump The Bride as my second favorite Garwood. Another re-read "surprise" was Elizabeth Lowell's Only His, which didn't originally do much for me. It worked a lot better the second time around. And I enjoyed the YA novel Sloppy Firsts better the second time around as well, which I re-read based on the DIK recommendation of AAR's Rachel Potter (both it and its sequel, Second Helpings, were my favorite YA novels of the year; Louise Rennison's fourth Georgia Nicholson novel, was a major disappointment and to me indicate the series has jumped the shark).

2004 signaled a major return to romance for me. While fewer than 60% of the books I read in 2003 were romances, 75% of my reading in 2004 was within the genre. Yes, I did go through some genre/sub-genre gloms during the year, and while some were not romance-related, others were. One foray outside the genre occurred in May when I read seven Chick Lit novels pretty much in a row - I doubt I'll do anything more than dip my toes into Chick Lit any time in the near future.. Another non-romance mini-glom was my continued reading of Young Adult novels; one weekend I read a four-book YA series. YA novels accounted for 15% of my reading in 2003 but only 7% in 2004.

Overall Look at my 2004 Reading Year
Books Read in 2004 by Genre By Percent A B C D F
Erotica 1% 0 0 1 0 0
Fantasy 1% 0 0 1 0 0
Historical Fiction 1% 0 1 0 0 0
Suspense 1% 0 1 1 0 0
Non-Fiction 1% 0 2 0 0 0
Romance Hybrids 2% 0 3 0 0 0
Fiction 3% 0 1 3 0 0
Horror 3% 0 3 1 0 0
Chick Lit 5% 0 2 4 1 0
Young Adult Fiction 7% 0 5 4 0 0
Romance 75% 2 47 40 11 1
  Totals 100% 2 65 55 12 1

My biggest romance-related gloms were Mary Balogh and Elizabeth Lowell, the latter being part of a larger Western Historical Romance glom. Early in the year I read six of Balogh's trads in quick succession. And as a result of recommendations from AAR reviewer Lynn Spencer - both early in the year and then again in June - I went on a Western glom. I read fourteen Westerns over a period of a month or so and liked the vast majority of them; it was clearly my most successful sub-genre of the year. Five were Elizabeth Lowell Westerns I'd never read before (I also read a sixth, but it's not counted here because it's a re-read). I still have a stack of Westerns left to read, but my habit of narrowing my focus to a few premises - as detailed in a segment that appeared at the end of an ATBF for April of this year - worked both for me and against me. It helped me choose books I thought I would like, but too many books with similar premises can also lead to burn-out.

2004 may have been the first year I didn't read a single Medieval romance (but I did re-read nearly all of Garwood's Medievals), although the year before wasn't much better - I read only one in 2003. My favorite sub-genre used to be the European Historical, followed by the Medieval; that is most assuredly no longer the case. Over the first several years of my romance reading, I read romance almost exclusively, European Historicals and Medievals almost exclusively, and after learning what I liked through initial author gloms - "new" romance almost exclusively.

As the years passed I began to read other sub-genres; first contemporaries, than series romances. And more and more older romances creeped into my reading, and eventually, other genres altogether. 2001 was the year I began my love affair with traditional Regencies; it was also the year that Horror and Fantasy played a big part in my reading. While trads continued as a major force in my reading for 2002 - I think one in four of the romances I read that year were trads - I read a great many YA novels as well. 2003 was another big year for YA reading; it was also the first year that romance novels took a back seat to other reading.

As a reader who once thought of herself on the "cutting edge" of keeping up with new releases, it's clear that's no longer the case - less than a third of the books I read in 2004 were published in 2004. True, I know what's been released and how various books have been assessed by others, but more and more I'm marching to my own drumbeat. Perhaps not the best thing for a publisher of a site like this to do, but what I'm looking for these days doesn't seem to match what's being published...or maybe I'm just not looking in the right place for it. Or maybe it's just these damn gloms I find myself on year after year...they really can be a pain in the ass, you know?

Publish Years & Numbers of Books Read in 2004
Year Books Published Number Read % Read Number Romances % Romances Read
2005 2 1% 2 100%
2004 42 31% 25 60%
2003 24 18% 17 71%
2002 9 7% 7 78%
2001 13 10% 11 85%
2000 9 7% 9 100%
Pre-2000 36 27% 32 89%
"Percentage of Books Read" - 31% of the books I read in 2004 were published in 2004.
"Percentage of Romances Read" - of the books I read that were published in 2004, 60% were romances.

2004 brought me back to romance in a big way, but comparing it to the very early years of my romance reading and it almost seems as though two different readers are involved instead of just one. Had anyone suggested to me back in 1993 that the trad would account for 1/5 of the books read, I'd have laughed in her face. Just contemplating a year in which only one out of ten romances read would fall into the European Historical category and I'd have been astonished. But then, I think I've vowed for the past two years - at least - that I'd cut down on my reading of series romance. I've reduced it (from over a third of my reading to about a fifth) but given that the vast majority of grades given in 2004 for series titles were C's, an even greater reduction is called for. But it takes discipline, the same kind of discipline needed to not drive through McDonald's because it's quick, easy, and filling. But, oh, those empty calories! For me most series romance is empty calories.

Overall Look at My Romance Reading in 2004
Romances Read in 2004 by Sub-Genre Percent A B C D F
Historical Romance 1% 0 1 0 0 0
Romantic Suspense 1% 0 0 0 1 0
Vampire Romance 1% 0 0 1 0 0
Fantasy Romance 3% 0 3 0 0 0
Contemporary Romance 6% 1 2 1 2 0
European Historical Romance 11% 0 6 4 1 0
Western Historical Romance 17% 0 12 4 1 0
Romantica 19% 0 9 7 2 1
Regency Romance 20% 1 11 7 1 0
Series Romance 22% 0 3 16 3 0

2004 stacks up as another reasonably good reading year in terms of how well I liked what I read - I gave grades of B- or higher to almost half of what I read. That's down quite a bit from 2003, though, when close to 60% of the books I read earned grades at this level. In fact, it's the first year since 2000 that my A's and B's didn't total more than 50%. But I had two A's - and both were romances (last year only one of my three DIK's was a romance) and only one F, and as with last year, my percentage of D's was in the single digits. Still, that 47% B range doesn't tell a full story; more than half of those B's were B-'s...just a hop, skip, and jump away from being C+'s.

 Comparison of Grades over a 5-year Period
Grade 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000
A 1% 4% 4% 2% 3%
B 47% 55% 48% 59% 43%
C 41% 29% 30% 29% 32%
D 9% 8% 17% 12% 14%
F 1% 4% 8% 5% 8%

Invariably I spend a goodly amount of the latter part of the year in a reading slump; I would say mine began after getting stuck on The Real Deal. The first two 2005 releases I read, in December, surely didn't help matters - both earned D+'s. Even so, the 100-book challenge I gave myself for 2004 is one I consider more than a success. I met what was a major goal for myself, a sub-genre that had never done much for me in the past opened up a while new set of choices, I discovered the joys of re-reading, changed my mind on a book based on a re-reading, and fell in love with two romances that are opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of style and sub-genre. Can it get really much better than that?

So rather than ending this column on a downer because such a high percentage of reads this year were in the "average" category, instead I'll celebrate the (first-time read) books - in order - I most enjoyed in 2004 (DIK's and B+'s). I've written about most if not all of them throughout the year, but it never hurts to mention good books, does it? The links you find in the blue box below are to an adjunct page specifically set up to provide more detail on each of my favorite reads. The page includes back cover synopses and text excerpted or adapted from my other writings - often here at AAR - which is why they are not included on this page (once is enough for those who've already read my raves so I won't ask that you read them again).

My Top Reads in 2004

  1. The Real Deal by Lucy Monroe - Contemporary Romance (2004) - a LLB DIK
  2. A Family for Gillian by Catherine Blair - traditional Regency Romance (2001) - a LLB DIK
  3. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase - European Historical Romance (1995)
  4. Courting Trouble by Nonnie St. George- traditional Regency Romance (2004)
  5. The Ideal Wife by Mary Balogh - traditional Regency Romance (1991)
  6. The Obedient Bride by Mary Balogh - traditional Regency Romance (1989)
  7. Winter Fire by Elizabeth Lowell - Western Historical Romance (1996)
  8. Only Mine by Elizabeth Lowell - Western Historical Romance (1992)
  9. Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson - Hybrid of Romance/Chick Lit/Vampire (2004)
  10. Second Helpings by Megan McCafferty - Young Adult Novel (2003)
  11. Mail-Order Bride by Maureen McKade - Western Historical Romance (2000)

Now that you've heard about my 2004 reading year, what about yours? Did you set yourself a reading goal - and if so, did you make it or fall short? If you kept track of your reading, was this something new for you or have you done it before? Were your ratings, grades, or general like and dislike of books similar to other years, or was this a better or worse year for you? Which were your DIK's and other stand-outs? Did you try new genres and/or sub-genres in 2004? Did "hell freeze over" for you in reading and loving a book or group of books you never would have thought you'd enjoy? Which were your biggest gloms of the year? And, whether or not this happened to you in 2004 - did you ever get "stuck" on a book like I did? I can't wait to hear from you!

Leigh Thomas is likely AAR's Anne Stuart aficionado. At least two dozen titles are mentioned in the segment below. As for me, two of Stuart's historicals land on my all-time keeper list - To Love a Dark Lord comes in at thirteen and A Rose at Midnight lands in the fourteenth slot. Even though she's only one of nine authors who have earned multiple DIK's from me, I've read but four of her books. My theory for that is that I've thought for some time that her best historicals were those she wrote for Avon in the early 1990s. But reading this "at their best" segment will likely inspire me to read further and I may change my mind. After all, reading earlier "at their best" segments has been an eye-opener for me. I hope it's working equally as well for you.

Authors at Their Best - The Passion of Anne Stuart (Leigh Thomas)

Anne Stuart is such a versatile author that trying to pinpoint what makes her, at her best, so darn good is a nearly impossible task. Every time I thought I had it pinned down, I'd think of an exception to the rule. She's known for her dark heroes, but has also written those who aren't that dark at all. She's written tough heroines and weak heroines, earth mother types who thrive on taking care of others and emotionally fragile ones who are barely hanging on. She's written dark suspense and light romps, emotional dramas and breezy comedies, historicals and contemporaries, paranormal flights of fancy and books grounded in reality. Yet despite the differences in plot or genre or character detail, all of her books share a quality that make them unmistakably hers.

It was one of her series titles, 1999's The Right Man, that finally clued me in to a possible answer. It's a book divided into three parts. In the first, Susan Abbott prepares for her present-day wedding to a suitable groom she's managed to convince herself is the right man for her. Then Jake Wyczynski, a rugged world traveler who most certainly is not the right man, arrives at her Connecticut home bearing a gift from her eccentric godmother. It's the wedding dress of Susan's aunt Tallulah, who died on her wedding day in 1949. Jake engages Susan more than her stolid fiance ever has, but she's determined to resist him. Then she tries on Tallulah's wedding dress and falls asleep. In Part Two, Susan finds herself in 1949, living the days leading up to Lou's ill-fated wedding. In a scenario that's all-too familiar, she's caught in a love triangle between Lou's proper fiance and another man who seems wrong but feels right. Finally, in Part Three, she returns to the present, using her experiences to make decisions about her own future.

Considered in conventional terms (always a tricky proposition with Stuart), the book might be seen as a failure. It's very short, and the complicated structure doesn't allow for much development of the present-day relationships. Naturally Susan chooses Jake over her stiff fiance in the end, running off with him despite the fact that they've only just met. "That's not a satisfying romance! She barely knows him!" the cynical reader will protest. But that's precisely the point. It's about that kind of love that's completely reckless and irrational, about feeling things that don't make any sense and rushing headlong into the breach. By reliving her aunt's story, Susan learns that love has nothing do with what makes logical sense and everything to do with feelings that can't be denied, and how important it is to grab on to that chance at love or risk losing it forever.

This is precisely what makes Stuart's books something special for me. It's all about the emotion. The author's blurb in one of her series books states, "Anne Stuart likes passionate stories and tales of love that transcend the experience of everyday life." No surprise then that those are exactly the kinds of stories she writes. At her best, her books aren't just love stories; they're romantic in that way romance novels should be and too seldom are. So many romances are earthbound. They tell perfectly normal, relatable stories of people who spend time together, get to know each other, and fall in love. In Stuart's books, love isn't like that. It's not simple or easy or sensible or mundane. It's passionate and intense and larger than life. She's so good at capturing that crazy, inexplicable, completely illogical kind of love people fall into despite everything they think they want or they know. For her characters falling in love isn't easy, but when they fall, they fall hard. Readers who prefer their romances to be more practical and grounded in real life will likely find Stuart's books verge on melodramatic. They're often the kind of relationships sensible women would avoid in real life, which is what gives her stories a fantasy element too few romances have. That's exactly what makes them compelling. Through her books, readers can vicariously experience the kind of love that doesn't make sense, but which Stuart is able to convince the reader is absolutely right.

There are a few key ingredients that make a Stuart book so good:

Conflict

First and foremost, it's a matter of conflict, and the sexual and emotional tension that spring from it. Many, if not most, of her stories involve attractions that on the surface don't make any kind of logical sense. Her contemporary single-titles from the late nineties, with her darkest heroes, display this quality at its most extreme. In Nightfall, the heroine falls for a man convicted of murdering his wife and children, who makes no claims of innocence. In Ritual Sins, he's a cult leader so dark any sensible woman would run screaming from him as fast as her legs could carry her. It can be a nun-in-training (The Soldier and the Baby) or a battered wife (Chain of Love) shocked to find themselves interested in a man at all. It can be a woman drawn to the man she blames for the loss of her entire family (A Rose at Midnight), the man who stole her birthright (Rancho Diablo) or the man trying to steal her Manhattan high-rise out from under her (Glass Houses). She might be convinced he's a con artist who stole the identity of a dead man (Shadow Lover), a cat burglar (Catspaw), or her very own brother (Tangled Lies). Stuart almost always sets up a situation where there's some tension between the hero and heroine from the very beginning. She either knows that she shouldn't be attracted to him, or she's not sure why she is and doesn't like it. Either way, she's drawn to him just the same.

In many cases, he's no more interested in getting involved with her than she is with him. If he's pursuing her, it's often as a means to an end. He may want something from her or may gain something by seducing her, but he's seldom motivated by something as basic as desire. In those cases, his attraction comes as an unexpected, sometimes unwanted, development. In other stories, he might not like her any more than she likes him. He might find her irritating, he might recognize that he's all wrong for her, or he might believe the worst about her. Sometimes he's simply tortured, not interested in a relationship at all. Or he may tell himself that what he wants from her is simply sexual or a challenge, nothing more, resisting his true feelings. As an example, here's the hero's reaction to his first meeting with the heroine in Break the Night:

He didn't like her. Didn't like her narrow waist and the swell of her breasts beneath the tank top, didn't like her thick mane of hair, didn't like her mouth or her eyes or anything else about her.

But still, there was something about her, something that haunted him. She'd stood in his apartment, defiant, frightened, and he'd been able to smell the faint tang of soap and sweat on her skin, the rain in her hair, the tequila on her lips, and now he wondered what her lips would have tasted like if he'd crossed the remaining distance between them and kissed her. Would he have tasted life?

She had wonderful eyes. Huge, brown, full of warmth and a tremulous kind of wariness. Her eyes had held something else as well. Filled with knowledge, and also doubt, they'd seemed to mirror decades of lost chances, a lifetime of faded dreams. He'd looked into her eyes, and for the first time in his memory he'd felt emotions, longings, impossibilities that had suddenly seemed possible.

As a result, the emotional stakes are high for both characters. The deep conflict established from the beginning ensures that love isn't going to come easy for these people. Their feelings for each other are going to challenge who they are and what they think they know and want. It's typically going to require growth on the part of both characters, always a good thing.

I think it's one reason why Stuart is one of the very best writers of romantic suspense. Her suspense tales aren't built around elaborate plots or surprise endings. In most cases, her stories are more character-driven and the villains are usually no surprise. The suspense comes just as much from the relationship as it does from outside forces. She generally doesn't write the kind of suspense where one of the characters is a cop or secret agent assigned to a case whose only personal stake comes when he/she falls for the other character and is motivated to keep that person alive. In Stuart's books, both the characters have an emotional stake in the outcome of the plot from the very beginning. In addition, getting involved with the hero is often just as much a risk to the heroine as any threat on her life, and the suspense is generated just as much from the danger he poses to her emotions. More than their lives are on the line. Their hearts, if not their very souls, are too, which makes her stories that much more dramatic and suspenseful than most romantic suspense.

Even in her lighter books, the conflict keeps the story more emotionally charged, often heightening the sexual tension. The differences between the characters and what they want from each other gives their interactions an extra spark. Whether it's a soldier and a novice traipsing through the jungle, or a Chicago lawyer falling for a 1920s gangster, their differences make the attraction between them that much riskier and more exciting. At her best, Stuart delivers some potent sexual tension between her characters, and a large part of that stems from the conflict and just how charged the situation is between them.

Heroes

Stuart's heroes have a reputation for being bad boys. While that's mostly true, I think they're too diverse for that term to really apply to all of them and capture what it is that makes them so singular. Some are much "badder" than others, so much so that it doesn't seem accurate to use that word to compare such different men.

What can be said for Stuart's heroes is that they always have an edge. They may be tortured. They may be ruthless and driven. They may be overly familiar with the shady side of humanity and have criminal leanings. They may be arrogant or cynical. They may be charming rogues. They're always alpha, never the beta good guy. Even characters who might be sensitive nice guys in the hands of other authors, like the scientist hero from Cinderman, are instead rude and egotistical. They may not always be "bad," but they're never the "safe" guy most women could imagine themselves putting up with or wanting anything to do with except as a fantasy.

Stuart's books provide that fantasy, as so many of her books examine the lure of these men who irritate, infuriate, mystify or terrify the heroines, yet inexplicably compel them at the same time, all within the reasonably safe confines of a genre where a happy ending is guaranteed. In real life, many of these men would be more than most women would (or should) be willing to take, but in a romance, we know the heroine will be able to tame them, at least as much as they're able to be tamed. They intrude on the heroine's comfort zone, often pushing her into areas foreign to her where she's ill at ease. The most extreme cases often get away with behavior that wouldn't be acceptable in real life to most people, and some readers won't be comfortable with in fiction. Their edge is exactly what makes them such compelling characters and what makes these relationships so intriguing, as the author explores what draws the heroines to these men, and makes the reader feel her fascination.

From Shadows at Sunset

"You really do think I'm a shit, don't you?"

"Yes. No. I'm not sure," she said honestly.

"If you feel that way about me why in God's name do you want to go to bed with me?" He'd moved closer to the bed, watching her with an obvious mixture of irritation and interest.

"Because you're wicked and selfish and bad to the bone, and I'm tired of being good and noble. You've been sniffing around me like I'm a bitch in heat--I'm offering myself to you." She tried to sound infinitely practical. Considering that he was looming over her in the shadowed room, and she had the unfortunate habit of reacting to him like an adolescent in the throes of first passion, she was doing a good job. He made her heart pound, her stomach knot, her breasts ache and her skin prickle, all without touching her. And she really, really wanted him to touch her.

At the same time, in order to make them believable as heroes, however flawed, the author has to show the reader that there's more to the character beyond that edge. As a result, Stuart's heroes are often some of the most complex in the genre. It's easy to convince a reader a hero deserves love if he's a conventional good guy, a cop or soldier who always does right. It's less clear-cut, and much more interesting, when he's more obviously flawed. It's not a simple matter of dumping a sad past on his shoulders to make his behavior excusable. In some cases, his behavior isn't excusable no matter what his past may have been. Instead, the author has to develop more sides to the hero's character, to show his heart and that he is capable of feeling, or at the very least to make it so that the reader can understand him. In Stuart's best books, she pulls it off. Luke Bardell (Ritual Sins) may be one of the darkest antiheroes to appear in a romance novel, but the author peels back enough layers to show us what made him the way he is. That doesn't mean he's necessarily redeemed as a good guy in the end. He remains far darker than many readers will be comfortable with. But even damaged people need love, and seeing a character this damaged receive that is rewarding for readers willing to take him as he is.

There are far less extreme examples, of course. Most of Stuart's series backlist feature heroes who are flawed in more usual ways, like Noah Grant (Housebound), so tortured by the death of his wife in childbirth that he refuses to open his heart to anyone else. Whether dark or light, often the contrast between the hero's "edge" and the heart that emerges leads to some of the author's most powerful or romantic moments. Richard Tiernan (Nightfall) is openly manipulative, but when his reasons for his actions come out and he opens himself to the heroine, it's an amazing scene. We meet Jake Murphy (Against the Wind) in two guises: as a stoic, haunted Vietnam vet in flashback and as the ruthless, domineering guerilla who takes the heroine prisoner in the present. There seems to be a disconnect between the two, until a photograph reveals the depth of his feelings for her and how the achingly romantic figure of her youth remains beneath the rough exterior. In Heart's Ease, one of the most effective secret child books I've ever read, the hero is completely arrogant and rude. But in the moments when he learns he has a daughter, he's so shockingly vulnerable you can't help but be moved.

At their best, Stuart's heroes have that edgy side and their share of flaws, but they're also men whose feelings run true and deep. When they fall, they fall hard, even if it's sometimes in spite of themselves. They may not be wholly transformed into pure and good creatures by their feelings for the heroine, but that wouldn't be believable or necessarily desirable. Instead, they're redeemed enough by showing they're capable and deserving of love while retaining their essential nature and who they are. Their emotions aren't always pretty, but they're fascinating to read about.

Heroines

Stuart is well-known for her heroes, but her heroines are just as important, if not even more, to the success of her stories. She may not be as memorable or unique, but sometimes it's better that she's not. She's the reader's entry into the story, as open to us as the hero is enigmatic. Through her eyes, the reader is able to feel the appeal of a hero who common sense often says she should avoid like the plague.

It's a key role, and one reason why Stuart's best heroines are the ones who aren't complete pushovers, but have a will of their own. They're fighters who aren't completely led around by the nose by the hero, and are more than capable of catching him off guard as well. Judith Daniels (Hand in Glove), determined to uncover the truth about her friend's mysterious death, is one of Stuart's strongest heroines. Maddy Lambert (Against the Wind) may find herself imprisoned by her hero at first, but proves she's not going to let him order her around after she falls for him. Laura de Kelsey Winston (Glass Houses) is a fiery personality who goes toe to toe with Manhattan's most ruthless developer, so while it seems like he gets the better of her, in the end she brings him to his knees.

When it comes to the Stuart heroine, the reader needs to be convinced of at least two things. First there has to be something about her that draws the hero and makes her appealing to man who, in many cases, has no interest in falling in love. She also has to have a mind of her own, because it doesn't say much for the hero's appeal if the heroine is so stupid you could see her falling for anyone, no matter how big a loser he is. The books where the heroine fails to convince us of that, where she's too weak or too stupid for the reader to relate to, tend to be Stuart's weakest. 2003's controversial Into the Fire is a key example. It was bad enough the "hero" was a one-note jerk, coming across like a bad parody of a Stuart antihero. But the heroine was a pathetic, helpless, brainless dope who completely lacked the capacity to give any indication she wanted him or enjoyed the way he treated her at all. As a result, his behavior, instead of being darkly seductive, felt petty and cruel, and what might have been a "forced seduction" with a feistier and more responsive heroine merely came across as outright rape. On the other hand, there's Cassidy Roarke (Nightfall), who largely is overwhelmed by her hero, but shows enough spark to make his interest believable and to show she's capable of taking him on.

Stuart's heroines are often vulnerable and/or wounded, which makes them susceptible to her heroes in ways more confident, well-adjusted heroines might not be. In many cases, it makes them as interesting and complex as the heroes, albeit in completely different ways. If Stuart's best heroes are flawed in ways that are fascinating and larger than life, her best heroines are flawed in ways that are very human and relatable. They may have been through a traumatic experience, they may have been denied affection or love by men or parental figures, they may be trying to be something they're not, or they may simply be lost souls. They may be na´ve or sheltered or even foolish. It's their very foibles and insecurities that make them so real and empathetic.

There's Ghislaine (A Rose at Midnight), who lost her entire family and had her world torn apart, until the only thing she had to keep her going was the need for revenge against the man she blamed for it all. There's Anne (Housebound), stubbornly holding on to a home her family can no longer afford that's falling apart around her, or her mirror image, Jilly (Shadows at Sunset), utterly codependent and so consumed with tending to her siblings that she neglects herself. There's Jessica from Banish Misfortune, bearing deep wounds she's managed to hide from the world, until the hero walks into her life and sees straight through her. There's Carrie (Falling Angel), who left her Minnesota hometown for New York City to become a dancer, only to find, like so many others, that the talent that made her great in a small town wasn't good enough at the top. After hard times hit her hometown, due in some small part to something she did in New York, she runs herself ragged trying to make up for it to her friends and neighbors, neglecting her health and well-being in a misguided attempt to make things right.

Is it necessarily rational? Not at all, but people's emotions aren't always rational, and Stuart's heroines often display this. As is the case with their love stories, their behavior may not always be smart or logical, but at their best, their feelings are vivid and real. They're not heroines in the sense that they're perfect, noble women. They're heroines because deep down they're regular people (even if, like Elizabeth in Special Gifts, they happen to have psychic abilities) who reflect the pains and needs and insecurities that anyone can relate to. In their way, her heroines are just as in need of redemption as her heroes, needing to grow or heal or be loved. By taking on such strong men, they often end up finding strength they didn't even know they had and the inner change they always needed.

Courtship

One of the best aspects of Stuart's books is that the character interaction between the hero and heroine. She often doesn't have a large cast of characters, even in her longer books, and since her stories aren't overly plot-driven, there are often many scenes with just the hero and heroine together. Whatever subgenre she's writing in or what the specific personalities of the characters are, the banter and intimate moments between her heroes and heroines are often highlights.

In some of her lighter books, the banter can be pure fun, full of amusing bits and good lines. Here's a moment from the beginning of the noir-ish romp Chasing Trouble, between the cynical P.I. hero and the flighty San Francisco heiress trying to hire him:

"Do you always smoke so much?" Sally questioned artlessly, sliding onto the top of the desk beside his large, sneakered feet, dumping half the papers on the floor at the same time. "It's no wonder your voice sounds like gravel and your office smells like toxic waste. If you keep this up, you'll die young."

He just stared at her, as if he couldn't quite believe her gall. She'd seen that expression often enough-she didn't let it slow her down. "It's too late," he said. "I've already missed dying young by at least five years. You, however, might make it under the deadline if you don't tell me what you're doing here."

"Why don't you want to take me on as a client?" she asked instead.

"You're trouble, lady. From the tips of your brand-new shoes to the top of your up-scale haircut, you're the kind of client I do my best to steer clear of."

She glanced around the seedy office meaningfully. "Obviously. I pay very well."

In others, it's very much a battle of wits, razor-sharp dialogue coming fast and furious between two smart individuals. In many cases, the heroine's sharp tongue is all she has to defend herself against a hero she finds overwhelming, and it can be incredibly entertaining to watch her use it. Often, her ability to verbally parry with him excites and intrigues him as much as anything else about her, and it's not hard to see why. In many cases, it makes him more likable, that he can appreciate her wits and take it as well has he can dish it out, as in this moment from the medieval Lord of Danger:

"You're shocked, my lady? You disapprove of a married man disporting while his wife is away?" Simon pursued the subject, watching her out of his still, golden eyes. "Most people are prey to lust. It's a healthy enough urge."

"For the men perhaps," she said. "You have yet to convince me that women suffer from the same flaw. Or that it would be in any way healthy if they did."

"You don't think women feel lust?"

"Not decent women."

"I think you were in the convent too long, my lady."

"Not long enough," she muttered gracelessly. "And lust is a sin."

"You don't strike me as much of an expert on sin, Lady Alys."

"And you certainly know far too much about the subject," she shot back, startling a laugh out of him.

In her darker books, the wary exchanges between the hero and heroine are the most compelling parts of the story. The characters circle around each other, every line laden with deeper meaning, each moment crackling with sexual tension. It can be fascinating to behold. Often she's trying to resist falling under his spell, while these moments only pull her in deeper and make the attraction that much more palpable. In these cases, the dialogue isn't merely entertaining, because the emotional stakes are too high. Shadows at Sunset is a favorite of mine, a book where the uneasy dance between the hero and heroine is so juicy and compelling that it far outweighs the story's weaknesses. (One of my favorite lines is when the heroine tells the hero: "I'm not biologically equipped for a pissing contest, Mr. Coltrane.") It's full of great moments:

"I don't like you," she said abruptly. "And I don't trust you."

"I know," he said with unexpected gentleness.

"Give me a reason why I should."

"I can't think of one."

"Are you going to help me?"

Lying was second nature to him. He didn't even hesitate. "Yes," he said.

And for a moment, it looked as if she might make the desperate mistake of believing him.

Mood

The emotions evoked by a book don't spring solely from the characters and the conflict. The sense of mood and atmosphere plays a key part as well, and Stuart is a master of finding just the right tone for her stories. From the gothic excess of Night of the Phantom to the horror movie overtones of Hand in Glove's mysterious puppet factory to the chilling winterscape of Shadow Lover, the setting and the atmosphere it brings to the story is often so pitch perfect that it really enhances the emotional level. What's most impressive is how she's often able to convey a sense of place in only a few words. In the prologue of Break the Night, Stuart manages to evoke a chilling, rain-soaked Los Angeles where a legendary killer lurks the streets, setting the mood for the rest of the story in a single page. A completely different example is this from The Soldier and the Baby, where it took less than a paragraph to transport me to its exotic locale:

She moved through the empty hallways, her sandaled feet silent beneath the heavy swish of her long skirts. It was a quiet afternoon--the jungle surrounding the decaying remains of the Convent of Our Lady of the Repose was thick and heavy with heat and somnolence. Even the birds and the monkeys had lapsed into a drowsy trance.

The Romance

I think I've only scratched the surface of what makes Anne Stuart, at her best, such a singular talent in the romance world. I haven't gotten to touch on her secondary romances, where she often flips the roles of the hero and heroines, with more jaded women and sensitive men. I could say a lot more about what a diverse, unconventional lot her heroes are, so different from the typical romance heroes, from medieval magicians and court jesters to Depression-era pilots and modern-day assassins. I don't think I've said enough about her voice, which is so strong and unique, something increasingly rare in the genre (although I hope the excerpts offer a glimpse of what makes her such a terrifically entertaining writer). She's written so many different types of characters and storylines that there's no way to cover them all here.

But once again, I think what it comes down to is how romantic her stories are. At their best, they're not merely love stories. They are romantic. Whether light or dark, they're passionate and emotional. They invite the reader to experience deep feelings and big emotions, to be caught up in the kind of love that's powerful and larger-than-life, far removed from the everyday love of real life.

Some of Stuart's books feature epilogues that show the main characters some time later, happily together and either expecting or surrounded by children. Even The Right Man shows the heroine long after she runs off with the hero, hugely pregnant and content. This is probably reassuring for some readers, who want to know that everything ended well, especially when so many of Stuart's couples seem to face such huge odds. Personally, I love the books that don't end so neatly, that leave the characters on that transcendent moment when they're together and ready to face their future. One of my favorite endings ever in a romance novel is the end of Lord of Danger. The hero is preparing to ride off to parts unknown. The heroine is terrified of horses. This is what happens:

For a moment he said nothing. Then he spoke. "Will you come away with me?"

She looked warily at the horse. "Where?"

"To the far reaches of the world. To the isles of the north, where the wind is like ice. To the heat of the desert, to the mountains of Switzerland. Come away with me and you may never see England again."

It was a warning. She squared her shoulders, looking up at him. "Would I have to ride a horse?"

"Yes."

She tilted her head to one side, considering him. "Do you love me?"

"Love is a trick and a sham. A foolish plague and a lie and a torment."

"Do you love me?" she repeated, quite calmly. Knowing the answer.

"Yes, may it curse my soul."

"May it save your soul," she said. The horse moved, and she knew she could be trampled beneath his huge, sharp hooves.

"Are you coming?" he asked.

"Take me," she said, holding up her arms. And he pulled her up in front of him, onto the huge warm back of the horse.

The creature reared slightly, but Alys simply leaned back against Simon as his arms came around her. And they rode off into the moonlit night, the dry leaves rustling beneath the horse's hooves.

That's the end of the book. The hero admits his love for her. The heroine faces her fears and takes that leap with him into an uncertain future. The reader is asked to take that leap with them, to believe in their happy ending, where their love will be enough to see them through. It's a lovely moment, and basically the same leap readers take every time they pick up an Anne Stuart book, to believe in that kind of bold, reckless love. For readers willing to take the leap, Stuart at her best makes the journey more than worthwhile.

Time to Post to the Message Board

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

What was your reading year like? Since at least three upcoming columns will focus on buried treasure romances and favorite romances published in 2004, let's talk about the year in general as far as 2004-published romance is concerned, but specific about non-romances and romances published in earlier years:

  • How many books did you read in 2004?
  • What percentage of the books you read were published in 2004?
  • What percentage of the books you read were romances? Other books?
  • Did you set a goal and meet it? Did you exceed it or fall below it?
  • Do you keep track of what you read? If so, how do you catalog your reads? Did you recently start or have you been doing so for some time? If not, do you plan to in the future?
  • What were your favorite non-romances and favorite pre-2004 romances?
  • Did you leave any authors behind in 2004?
  • Did "hell freeze over" for you in reading and loving a book or group of books you never would have thought you'd enjoy?
  • Which were your biggest gloms of the year?
  • Whether or not this happened to you in 2004 - did you ever get "stuck" on a book like I did?

Anne Stuart: is she or was she ever one of your favorite romance authors? If so, why did/do you love her writing? Which, do you think, are her best books?

If you don't like her, why? Which book(s) did you try that led to your decision?

Anne Stuart writes widely across sub-genre lines; she's written Medievals, European Historicals, Contemporaries, Series Romance, and Romantic Suspense (at least). Do you prefer her writing in one or more of these sub-genres over the others? If so, which sub-genres, and why? She's also written for a variety of publishers. Laurie has a theory that her best historicals were with Avon in the early 1990s - what do you think?

Leigh writes that Anne Stuart's romances are not earth-bound, that everything about her books is larger than life, and that, for her characters, getting to love is never easy. That is what makes her books special to Leigh. Laurie tends to agree, although she also enjoys the two-for-one aspect of Stuart's books in that a secondary romance oh-so-complementary to the primary romance is an added bonus.

  • Do you prefer romances that tell " perfectly normal, relatable stories of people who spend time together, get to know each other, and fall in love"? Or do you tend to go for stories that capture the "crazy, inexplicable, completely illogical kind of love people fall into despite everything they think they want or they know"?
  • Stuart's books are larger than life because her characters are larger than life. Her tormented heroines are highly tormented and her tortured heroes are extremely tortured. Which of her tormented/tortured characters did you love most? Which do you think went over the line, and why? Along those same lines, do you find that any of her books simply went over the top for you in terms of melodrama, or did she manage to reign in those aspects?

Leigh's segment is broken down into these sections: Conflict, Heroes, Heroines, Courtship, Mood, and The Romance. Talking specifically about Stuart and then in general about other authors:

  • Which types of conflict do you most prefer? Do you like internal conflict between hero and heroine, intra-character conflict where there's a fight within one or both leads as opposed to a conflict between them, or external conflict, or some combination of all three?
  • We've talked a great deal in recent weeks as a result of other "authors at their best" segments about heroes and heroines. Feel free to do so again, but if not, let's move on to Courtship, Mood, and The Romance. Many long-time romance readers remember the days when bodice-ripping was considered courtship. What types of courtship do you most prefer, and why? As far as mood, do you have particular preferences there as well?
  • As for The Romance, we go back to Stuart's larger than life writing and the grand sweep of it. Which other authors do you believe capture that essence? And which do you believe create the best "earth-bound" romances?
TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books & Leigh Thomas

LLB's Top Reads of 2004
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