Treat yourself to the AAR bookbag!

February 15, 2005 - Issue #196

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Every as-close-to-Valentine's-Day-as-we-can-get-it, we run our Isn't it Romantic? Contest (our eighth annual this year), and every year for the past four years, Blythe Barnhill, AAR's managing editor, surveys the rest of us at AAR for our choices of Best Romance of the Year just past.

We realize we spend quite a bit of time going into each new year talking about the best of last year's reading, but we like to give the best their due, for without favorites, why would anyone want to read? Which is one reason we present Robin's annual look at buried treasures - the other is to kick off the annual reader poll to give all of you perhaps some last minute choices before voting. We keep the poll open for a full month, waiting until its close before sharing our own nods for "best romance" so as not to influence anyone in the voting process. Indeed, the poll closed at midnight last night, and after all the last-minute votes have been tallied, I'll be contacting the big winners and preparing the results column, which will go online on March 1st.

Each year Blythe's column is different, reflecting the changes in our staff, our reading, and which authors have caught our imaginations. Some years we see a clear winner while in others there are nearly as many choices as there are AAR staff. For 2001, for instance, seven of us named Suzanne Brockmann's Over the Edge as "best" - the very next year, for 2002, 28 of us had spread our vote for "best" among 23 titles (two books received three votes apiece: Suzanne Brockmann's Out of Control and Connie Brockway's Bridal Favors). Last year, in choosing our "best" of 2003 releases, twice as many of us couldn't pin down a "best" as the title to actually receive the most votes, Nonnie St. George's The Ideal Bride. But it was also the first and only time my personal choice "won" among our staff, although way back in 1999 (before Blythe started to do this annual column), my pick actually won as 1999's Best Romance in our annual reader poll - it was Nora Roberts' Sea Swept, btw.

Without further ado, let me turn things over to Blythe. After her presentation I'll wrap things up by revealing the winner in our Isn't it Romantic? Contest.


Reviewer's Choice (Blythe Barnhill)

I look forward to writing this column every single year. One of the reasons I enjoy it so much is that it's an opportunity for reviewers to gush with impunity. It's easy for us to get caught up in analyzing a book and discussing its pros and cons, but when we talk about our favorite books, we get to rave like the fans of romance reading we are. It's also fun to see what we all think of as the best of the best. In the past, it's been hard for some reviewers to pin down a choice, which is one reason that some of us talk about our second (and third, and fourth) favorites. But this time, nearly everyone had a clear favorite right off the bat. We also achieved something that has eluded us in recent years - a definite winner and a strong runner up.

Even with one clear winner this year, there was plenty of room for diversity. Our reading tastes vary, and some of us go through phases where certain sub-genres are more appealing than others. In previous years Rachel Potter's choices were two connected historical fiction novels - Paullina Simons' The Bronze Horseman and Tatiana and Alexander - and the time travel romance George and the Virgin, by Lisa Cach.

Right now, though, and for quite a while, she's mostly focused her reading on Young Adult Fiction, so it’s not really surprising that her choice for 2004 is a YA book, Sarah Dessen's The Truth about Forever. As a matter of fact, Rachel admits that nearly all her 2004 DIKs were for YA books, and added a plug for an ineligible favorite: “I wish, wish, wish I could name Sloppy Firsts/Second Helpings by Megan McCafferty, but I'm at least a year too late." (LLB, btw, strongly recommends the McCafferty titles as well, and thanks Rachel for writing a combo-DIK on the two books, which inspired her to re-read the first and read the second at the end of 2004. Both were among her favorite reads of 2004.)

Leigh Thomas has always read mostly Series Romances; indeed, anyone visiting AAR in the past couple of years has certainly noticed we now review quite a few series titles. Though making a final choice was difficult, Leigh ended up choosing a series title (for the third year in a row) from Silhouette's new Bombshell line, Evelyn Vaughn's A.K.A. Goddess. Given the lackluster quality of the line's first couple of releases, Vaughn's book, the seventh Bombshell, sends a hopeful sign. FYI, the Bombshell line is Harlequin's first non-romance series line and instead is more of a woman-centered action/adventure line featuring "kick-ass" heroines. (Leigh's previous choices are Some Men's Dreams by Kathleen Korbel and Harper Allen's The Night in Question.)


“I didn't love any romance I read in 2004 the way I did my favorites in previous years, but Evelyn Vaughn’s A.K.A. Goddess came the closest. It’s not technically a romance novel, but it is a very romantic story that, combined with its sequel, Her Kind of Trouble, told one of the most compelling love stories I read all year. The author introduces a fascinating mythology while delivering an action-packed plot, plenty of humor, and poignant emotion. The heroine is phenomenal, the settings are exotic, the storytelling is layered and complex. This is a series I hope continues for a long time, and it gets off to a great start here. Other standouts I’d like to mention:

"Catherine Mulvany’s Run No More – A flawed book, with so many things I wish had been done differently or better, yet it says how strong the story was that I loved it all the same. Both emotional and thrilling, it was such a wonderfully creative and unpredictable read that, even with its flaws, it excited me in a way few romances do anymore.

"Lisa Cach’s Dream of Me – A terrific, very original story. I loved the morally ambiguous hero, the fascinating world the author creates, and both the nicely romantic ending and the final, creepy grace note the story ends on. If it wasn’t for some of the wacky humor that felt out of place and didn’t always work for me, it might have been my favorite book of the year."

So far we've seen a YA novel and a series title each receive one vote as Best Romance of 2004. Another genre/sub-genre represented just once on this list of reviewer favorites is the traditional Regency Romance. Though several of us read them, only Jane Jorgenson chose one as her "best" of the year, although it is an "also-ran" for LLB.

Jane's earlier choices? Almost a Gentleman by Pam Rosenthal, Tracy Grant's Daughter of the Game , and Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris.

Interestingly enough, the author of Jane's choice for 2004 was also last year's "winner" - Nonnie St. George. The book? Courting Trouble.

Those of us who love traditional Regencies will sorely miss this author's writing; after just two trads she is moving on to contemporary romantic comedy. We hope she'll continue to tickle our funny bones.

Three of us chose Alternate Reality Romances as favorites. Long-time reviewer Liz Zink, whose choices in previous years include Kinley MacGregor's Born in Sin, Nora Roberts' Face the Fire, and Dance Upon the Air, also by Roberts, found that although she's been loving historicals forever, she found little to like in that vast set of sub-genres this year. Fortunately, she was able to fill the gap with paranormals. Her stand out book was Robin Owens’ Heart Duel.

Liz found 2004 to be an "excellent year for paranormal romances," something she finds unusual in that she can generally count on reading "one or two really good ones." The rest she has previously found wanting. Her second choice for the year was another AR read - Anne Kelleher's Silver's Edge (from Harlequin's new Luna imprint for Fantasy Fiction).

Liz was quite surprised that historicals proved to be generally disappointing in 2004, something that has not happened before. She did, though find one terrific historical even though she considers that she "bombed in the historical department this year," and that was Brockway's My Seduction.

One of our newest reviewers, Diana Ketterer, also chose an Alternate Reality read as her favorite – MaryJanice Davidson’s Undead and Unwed. She had this to say about her choice:

“It wasn't the best book I read all year, but it was the one that I emailed all my friends about, saying they just had to read it. It was also the first vampire romantic fiction I really liked, so in some sense it opened a new sub-genre to me as well (gotta give it props for that!). It was funny, often hilariously, sexy, and very inventive. Embodies all the things I really like about Chick Lit.”

TaKiesha was our third reviewer to pick an Alternate Reality title as "best" of 2004. In fact, this is the second year in a row her best loved romance has been from the AR sub-genre (last year it was Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dance with the Devil). She read several great books this year, but gave top honors to Susan Sizemore’s I Thirst for You, which she thought was a great example of the current vampire trend.

TaKiesha is just one of our reviewers who reads widely across sub-genres, and her other standouts illustrate that point. Although Brenda Jackson's the Playa's Handbook "was not a traditional romance," she "loved the way [Jackson] told the story."

Another of her favorites was Adrianne Byrd’s romantic suspense If You Dare. TaKiesha thinks Byrd "keeps getting better and better." Her last mention was Suzanne Enoch England's Perfect Hero. In typical "bookie" fashion, as a result of enjoying Enoch's book so much, she went on an Enoch glom and "ended up reading her whole backlist."

While three of us chose Alternate Reality reads, another four of us - Lynn Spencer, Sandi Morris, Lori Sowell, and LLB - thought the best romances of the year were Contemporaries...but each chose a different one.


Last year Lynn's top choice was St. George's The Ideal Bride. This year it is the contemporary romantic suspense novel, Echoes, by Erin Grady, which she decided to read as a result of Sandy Coleman ’s DIK review. She had this to say about her choice: “It has been a very long time since I got completely engrossed in a romantic suspense novel like that.  Both the modern and the historical storylines drew me in and I did not want this to end.” Lynn also had some honorable mentions:

"The Linnet by Elizabeth English - This is a beautiful and touching Medieval.  English has a beautiful style and I think it's just criminal that she now seems to be without a contract.

"The Knave and the Maiden by Blythe Gifford - Gifford does a great job of evoking the medieval mindset in this novel.  She is certainly my debut author of the year, and I hope to see her in print again.

"Separation Anxiety by Karen Brichoux - Brichoux set up her story very well, and her characters stuck in my mind long after I finished reading."

Technical Editor Sandi Morris is one of the fastest readers of our group, so she always has a large pool of books to choose from (last year she read around 400 books). Though she expressed a wish to vote for favorites by category (as in our AAR reader poll), she singled out Linda Howard’s Kiss Me While I Sleep as her favorite of the year. Sandi's favorites over the years include Sharon Sala's The Way to Yesterday and The Phoenix Code by Catherine Asaro, and, interestingly enough, another Linda Howard title - Cry No More - earned her nod for best romance last year.

Lori Sowell, another of our new reviewers, chose Miss Fortune by Julia London. At times she’s felt like the lone voice in the wilderness; no one seemed to love the book as much as she did. For her it was by far the most memorable book of the year.

LLB's "best" choice was obviously Lucy Monroe’s The Real Deal; she's almost as sick of talking about it as everyone else is in hearing about it, although "clearly, that's no reason not to list it along with everyone else's favorites." Like many on our staff, her selections over the years are spread among more than one sub-genre - both St. George and Anne Gracie earned her top spot for traditional Regencies (The Ideal Bride and Tallie's Knight, respectively). But The Real Deal isn't her only Contemporary to land on top. Nora Roberts did it with Chesapeake Blue for 2002.

LLB says she's far more excited about the 2005 reading year than she was for most of 2004, though, and has already awarded her first DIK of a 2005 romance - Linda Howard's To Die For - and that was before the end of January, as was MJD's Derik's Bane, which she thought was "lots of sexy fun."   And even though LLB listed her favorite reads of 2004 in an earlier column, many were not romances - or current romances, she also wanted to share "the best of the rest" of 2004 romances: 

  • Undead and Unwed - MJD (although I think it's mislabeled as a Romance)
  • Smooth Talkin' Stranger - I'd prefer if Lorraine Heath continued to write her wonderful Western Historicals, but as Contemporaries go, this one was very nice, and I loved, loved, loved the hero
  • Courting Trouble - St. George's writing is absolutely brilliant and the traditional Regency will certainly suffer a loss as she's now moved on (and this after only two trads!)
  • The Royal Treatment - (again) MJD (this too was not a Romance, but it's labeled as one)
  • The Unexpected Wife - Mary Burton is a little-known author of Western Historicals for Harlequin Historicals, and while this was not the best I've read by her, it was the best 2004 Western I did read
  • The Bane Affair and The Shaughnessey Accord - While I didn't enjoy these quite as much as the others on this short list, Alison Kent is really responsible, along with MJD, for turning me on to Romantica.  I feel like such a perv.
  • Wild in the Moment - Jennifer Greene doesn't get a lot of discussion at AAR, and this was the best and last of a Series Romance trilogy begun in 2003.


Four of us chose Historical Romances this year. While Ellen Micheletti's choice stands alone, Teresa Galloway, Cheryl Sneed, and I all chose the same Regency-set historical.

Reviewer/Editor Ellen, whose previous stand-outs include St. George's The Ideal Bride, Stef Ann Holm's Girls Night Out, and Carla Kelly's One Good Turn, picked The Runaway Duke by debut author Julie Ann Long this time around: “It takes real talent to make a light Regency historical seem fresh and new. I can't remember when I've been so charmed by a book. Runner ups are Under a Lucky Star by Diane Farr because of its delightful characters and sweet story, and The Real Deal by Lucy Monroe because I love a good brainy hero.”

But it was Mary Balogh’s Slightly Dangerous that Teresa, Cheryl, and I voted as the best book of the year, which puts it in second place among our staff. Teresa added a child to her family this year, and consequently had less time for reading. Though she felt like her choices were pretty limited, Balogh’s book was head and shoulders above the competition. (Previous choices for her are Gone too Far and Over the Edge by Brockmann, and Fantasy Lover by Sherrilyn Kenyon.)

On the other hand, Cheryl, who is one of our very newest reviewers, is a voracious reader who had a good reading year in general. Slightly Dangerous tops her list of favorites:

I've had a pretty good reading year with ten books I graded A - all of them earned A's or B's from AAR reviewers, so I'm feeling pretty well in sync.  But if I have to pick just one book as a favorite it would be Balogh's Slightly Dangerous.  It was a great finish to a series that had far more hits than misses. Here are my other hits:

  • Duke of Sin, Adele Ashworth - The best thing she's written since Winter Garden, with sizzling dialogue between a sexy couple.
  • Under a Lucky Star, Diane Farr - Few people can write such Nice Guys without turning them into wimps.  It's criminal she is currently without a writing contract.
  • Miss Wonderful, Loretta Chase - What can one say but, welcome back, Loretta! We've missed you.
  • Deal with the Devil, Liz Carlyle - Lush prose, complex heroine, dishy hero, hot sex...what's not to love?
  • The Linnet, Elizabeth English - My favorite Medieval of the year, featuring a very vulnerable but strong heroine.
  • Guilty Pleasures, Laura Lee Guhrke - Smart, plain girl wins the hunky duke...every woman's fantasy.
  • England's Perfect Hero, Suzanne Enoch - Robert Carroway got my vote for best Tortured Hero (though I know Kinsale's Allegro will win!)  A PTS victim, he had such a vulnerable quality to him and how he forced himself to endure being in public crowds for love's sake was truly heroic.
  • The Incomparable Cassandra, Laura Paquet - This was my favorite Regency Trad of the year.  A quiet book where both hero and heroine change for the better as they quietly fall in love.
  • My Seduction, Connie Brockway - Nice to have a great meaty book from Brockway after a two year break following her two Bridal books.  I love Brockway Light, but was ready for another Brockway Dark. A terrific beginning to what promises to be an intriguing series.

As for me, I agree that this was a good year for historicals, something I couldn’t have said in years past. Slightly Dangerous led the pack for me because I loved Wulf’s character. I found myself re-reading scenes after I finished the book, and I was reluctant to pick up anything else (a rarity for me). I also enjoyed Julia Quinn’s When he was Wicked, Farr’s Under a Lucky Star, Chase’s Miss Wonderful, and Julia Ross’s delicious The Wicked Lover. My choices in earlier years, btw, include Julia Justiss' Wicked Wager, Kelly's The Wedding Journey, and Brockmann's Over the Edge.

And the winner, receiving the top nod from ATBF co-columnist Robin Uncapher, reviewer/editors Jennifer Keirans and Sandy Coleman, and pollster Shelley Dodge, is Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me.

Robin, whose previous votes have gone to Dorien Kelly's Do-Over, Balogh's A Summer to Remember, and Simons' The Bronze Horseman, is among several staff members who had a hard time choosing, but the fact that she recommended Bet Me to friends who didn’t even read romance was a deciding factor, as was its staying power. While other DIK's fade begin to fade from memory by the end of the year, Crusie's hero and heroine remain vivid in her mind. For Robin, this book "really stood out from the crowd...it was a book I admired as well as liked...as I read it I could not help thinking, again and again, 'I wish I'd said that'."

Two other 2004 romances came close to Bet Me for Robin, including St. George's Courting Trouble, which features dialogue that, in her view, is "written in the same snappy style" as Crusie's book. Her other "next best" was Balogh's Slightly Dangerous, about whose hero she says was "so humorless and dry that you just could not forget him."

AAR's Jennifer, who earlier choices were Holly Cook's The Sea Wife, Cheryl Reavis' The Older Woman, and Brockmann's Over the Edge, loved Crusie's winning romance because: "it was very fresh and seemed very real - this was not romance-novel-land, but seemed like a real relationship between two real people." Jennifer believes that Crusie "writes better witty repartee than just about anybody in the business," adding that she "liked listening to the protagonists fight so much, I was almost disappointed when they were getting along."

Sandy found excellent reading in 2004 and believes that Crusie had some very tough competition. Her top reads for the year included seven Historical Romances and three Contemporary Romances and/or Romantic Suspense novels. She loved Ashworth's Duke of Sin and Balogh's Slightly Dangerous, finding both "lush and adult stories that prove that there's a lot of life out there on the historical front." And she should know, having chosen historicals such as Grant's Beneath a Silent Moon, Brockway's Bridal Favors, and Diana Gabaldon's The Fiery Cross in the past.

Two books each by two authors also make Sandy's list - Guhrke's Guilty Pleasures and His Every Kiss, and Brockway's My Pleasure and My Seduction, particularly the latter, which "reminded [Sandy] quite forcefully why I think Ms. Brockway creates some of the most wonderful heroes in romance." Guhrke was a new author for Sandy and a "wonderful find." Finishing her list of historicals is Quinn's When He Was Wicked. Sandy says Quinn "deserves a lot of praise for switching gears a bit and delivering [this] excellent and decidedly more somber romance than the kind of books for which she's become justifiably famous.  She's a talented author whom I've always thought makes it look so easy that she never quite gets the credit I think she deserves."

As for her final choices, three books "blew me away this year" - Northern Lights by Roberts, Echoes by Grady, and Crusie's Bet Me.  She thinks Northern Lights was Roberts' "best book in years" and "a book I would unhesitatingly recommend to almost anyone -  including men." Sandy lucked out with Echoes, which she chose off a list of books to be reviewed nearly by happenstance. Grady, whose one and only previously book was published more than a decade ago, "deftly juggled two equally riveting stories, one set in the the late 19th century American West and another in the present.  I'm starting to feel a bit like a pusher of this book since I keep encouraging everyone to read it, but everyone, please read it!"

Even with so many stellar reads, Sandy's top choice was Bet Me:

"Bet Me was, hands down, my book of the year." She asked, "What can I say about this incredible book that hasn't already been said? That it was laugh out loud funny.  And charming.  And smart.  And so flat-out fabulous that I didn't even miss the hot sex! Historicals are always my first love in romance and for a contemporary to edge them all out is a real testament to Ms. Crusie's fabulous book.

Overall, I found it encouraging that so many of us had great reading years; it’s a real contrast to last year’s column, when several staff members couldn’t even name a favorite. And as often happens, there are several authors who didn’t get anyone’s top nod, but still appeared on several lists, as well as “winners” who were runners up for other reviewers. How well did our favorites match with yours? And if you’ve read this column before, are there certain reviewers whose favorites often match your own?

You can answer some of these questions on the ATBF Message Board, but for others you'll have to stay tuned for the next ATBF column, where results in our ninth annual reader poll will be revealed.


Isn't It Romantic? Contest (LLB)

Our annual Isn't It Romantic? Contest brought in perhaps the most entries ever received in the eight year history of the contest. Some years picking a winner is relatively easy. Other years I agonize about choosing a winner, and one year the choice was so hard to make that I encouraged the runner-up to submit her entry the next year.

That's how I feel about this year's slate of entries. I waited until Friday, after all had been received, to read any of them. Three brought tears to my eyes, and by Saturday I'd narrowed sixteen entries down to two. Dead stop - until late Monday night - when I finally made my decision. Once again I'm going to ask that those who did not win resubmit their entries next year. All were strong, three were wonderful. Of the three wonderful entries, two were great, and the final submission was...wow.

Congratulations, Michelle Scaplen...you're the winner in our eighth annual Isn't it Romantic? Contest!

Here is Michelle's story:

How would someone pick the most romantic thing that ever happened to them? Would it be a day filled with flowers and champagne? Would a room lit with candles and a sexy lingerie be involved? Personally I think it should be something more, something deeper. And since this is the most romantic moment, and not the most passionate moment, I think it should also hold a certain innocence.

I knew Frank for almost a year before that "moment". We worked at McDonalds together, I was a senior in high school and he had just graduated. It was so easy to become friends with him, he was such a nice guy. And kind of cute too. He had dark hair, unusual but enticing green-gray eyes, and a nose just slightly too big for his face.

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During that year, we worked hard but still had fun. We even competed for the Crew Member of The Month award. He won for Feburary, I won for March. The more I worked with him, the more I realized I how much I liked him. But he was older, and I was your usual insecure teenage girl. I never thought of myself as being pretty, and never had a real boyfriend before. But I got the courage to have my friend tell him that I liked him. I didn't even have the nerve for her to say my full name. She just told him that someone with the initials M S likes you. Later that day Frank asked me out.

I was so excited. We had been out before with friends, but this was an actual date. He picked me up at my house, met my parents, and took me to the movies. In all that time we've known each other I don't think we were ever alone together. And even though I had been kissed by boys before, I knew this night was different than your usual teenage party games like Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes in Heaven.

After the movie, we were a block away from my house when the song Glory of Love by Peter Cetera came on the radio. I loved the song, and since it was the theme song from the movie we had just seen, I asked him to drive around the block one more time so I could hear the whole song. What I was actually doing was buying time so I can get up the courage to kiss him when we arrived in front of my house. In all the time we've known each other, he'd never tried to kiss me, and I'd be damned if I let this opportunity pass. Frank seemed to be shy at times, and I wasn't sure he would take the initiative.

But when the song was over, and we were parked in front of my house I couldn't do it. And I said as much. "I can't do it." I whispered and banged my head on the headrest in frustration. And in that moment, the softest, sweetest lips were pressed against mine. It was a kiss of innocence and tenderness. There was no groping hands or tongues thrust deep into my mouth, and it sent my teenage heart racing.

When the kiss ended probably a few minutes later, but felt like a sweet eternity, he asked. "Can't do what?"

Two years, two days, and thousands of kisses later, we kissed each other in front of a reverend after we said our wedding vows, and later danced our first dance to The Glory of Love at our wedding reception. I wasn't even twenty years old at the time. Now I am thirty five and still feel a sense of excitement each time we kiss.

Michelle's story touched me and I'm sure I made the right choice. For winning in this year's contest, Michelle will receive one of the very last AAR Bookbags, stuffed full of romances. Once again, congratulations.

Time to Post to the Message Board

Now that we've closed the poll in our annual reader poll, we know you all want to talk about your favorite romances, so we're not going to stop you now! We can't see ourselves asking, "What did you think about my choice as best romance of the year?" so there will be no individual questions this time around - just an open forum for you to start talking about the books presented in the column and others you loved from 2004.

We understand there will be a lack of concensus regarding some of our reviewers' choices given that there's so much disagreement even among ourselves as to which romances were the best in 2004. If any of the titles presented in this column were of books you didn't care for, here's where you can talk about that. We didn't add a new category in this year's readers poll because it's already lengthy and complex, but wonder whether or not we should add this one next year: Over which book did you most disagree with AAR? We ask this even though the poll results have already revealed a partial answer...but you'll have to wait to find out.

The March 1st issue of At the Back Fence will present the winners/losers in this year's annual readers poll. It will include, as always, analysis of the biggest winners/losers and comments from some/most of the winningest authors. You'll be free at that point to share why you agree or disagree with the results.

In the meantime, though, feel free to talk about the books you loved from last year; you'll probably convince someone to try a book they hadn't considered; in fact, if reading this column does that for you, we're thrilled.

 

Blythe Barnhill and all of AAR's staff

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

 

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