July 15, 2005 - Issue #204

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

This is a shorter than usual issue of At the Back Fence. First up is What's in a List? - a segment based on our Special Title Listings. Although the column itself is shorter, it's very much a "working" column in that we need your help and direction on three of our existing Lists. We also reveal the winner in our in our just-ended ninth annual Purple Prose Parody Contest, and announce whether or not this will be the final year for this feature.

What's in a List? (Laurie Likes Books)

Way back in March 1996, in the very first issue of my column, I started a list of Favorite Funnies - the best, funny romances I'd read, and asked readers to contribute to the list. In the second issue of the column, that list grew with reader/author submissions, and it was in that second column that I began another list, for Two-Hanky Reads. It too grew with reader and author submissions and, lo and behold, the Special Title Listings feature at AAR was born.

While various lists had informally made their way onto Internet message boards and discussion lists, until our Special Title Listings began, most lists you'd see in formal arenas were based on time periods and sub-genres, such as best Time Travels or best Medievals. It's true that many of us once read/continue to read specifically within certain sub-genres or time periods, but for a lot of readers, premise and/or character type gloms are not unusual, requiring entirely different kinds of lists. Which is why, over the years at AAR we've developed, with reader input and often at reader request, more than five dozen Special Title Listings, the newest of which, Best Enemies, debuted earlier this month.

Our lists have gone through four editors since their inception, and Rachel Potter, who took over in December 2002, is well suited to the task given that she is by education and career a librarian. My own involvement at this point is in occasionally selecting the image to accompany a new list, and once in a while, contributing a title when a list opens up for submissions. Since my tenure as editor several years ago, some of our lists have been split into two or more lists, re-defined, or otherwise changed. One list was created using the input of three young women and hasn't been updated in nearly three years. Another has sat dormant for over three years while we figured out what to do with it, and another remains somewhat of a mystery based on its definition. By the time our next ATBF column goes online, I hope we've fixed each of these three lists.

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One of my guiding principles for AAR has been to do write and create what appeals to me, because if it is appealing to me, it'll appeal to at least some percentage of readers. Another guiding principle has been to allow AAR's staff to write and create what appeals to them, for the same reason - and because their enthusiasm is bound to create enthusiasm in others. And a third guiding principle has been to listen to our readers and be as organic as we can be in terms of the creation of content. By following these principles, AAR has grown beyond my wildest dreams throughout the years. But given the variety of interests to be found among readers, none of us at AAR can entirely relate to everybody else - or the entirety of our content. As a result, when I look at our Lists today, some of them make me wonder, "Why would anybody want a list of ____?"

While the primary purpose of the Special Title Listings is to provide readers with easy-to-manage lists that may aid in book searches and purchases, they were also instrumental in helping to build our annual reader poll categories. While it's true that we also award romances in more traditional categories, I continue to believe that awarding books in categories such as Best Cabin/Road Romance and Most Tormented Hero is not only valid, but fun.

I thought it might be useful to celebrate the variety that is romance - and the variety that is our readership - by talking about my favorite Lists here at AAR, but also to discuss those lists, requested by readers or created by Lists editors over time, that aren't ones I'd ever have considered. We can easily start with Favorite Funnies, the first of our Special Title Listings. It's no surprise, after all, that I'm a tremendous fan of the humorous romance, and just as obviously, many of you like a well-done funny love story. Humor, though, is one of the most subjective of qualities, and what brings on gales of laughter to one person may bring on an entirely different response in another.

Quite frankly, part of what I most adore about our Favorite Funnies list are the photos that accompany it. Just last week, with a group of family and friends, we watched the DVD of Young Frankenstein, reciting along with the movies' characters some of its great lines, including "Roll, roll, roll in ze hay", "Whose brain did you get?...Abbey someone...Abbey who?...Umm, Abbey Normal", "Yes, Yes...he vas my boyfriend", "I put a special hamper in the bathroom just for your shirts and the other one is for socks and poo-poo undies". It was while watching the poo-poo undies scene between Peter Boyle and Madeline Kahn that I recalled for our company how it took me years to find on the Internet precisely the images seen at the top of our Favorite Funnies list.

Actually, the photos and other images that accompany our Lists have become quite critical in their presentation. When Sandi Morris was Lists editor, she and I spent hours and hours coming up with just the right photos and montages, and Rachel has continued that tradition. Among my personal favorites are photos by/of the famous post-WWII Alfred Eisenstaedt of the sailor smooching the nurse for our new-ish Reunited list (kudos to Rachel for finding that one!), a courtroom scene from To Kill a Mockingbird (a very rare movie in that it is nearly as good as the book) on our Courtroom Dramas list, the hunkalicious pre-fat Alec Baldwin on our Rakes & Rogues list, the this-also-took-me-forever-to-find picture of Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies holding her shotgun in our Shotgun Weddings list, and the montage for our Spies, P.I.'s, & Warriors list, which book-ends Barney Fife and Maxwell Smart at either end of Mel Gibson as William Wallace, Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, and David James Elliott from J.A.G.

In addition to our Favorite Funnies list, here are those lists I turn to more often than any others:

Arranged Marriages Luscious Love Stories
Cabin & Road Romances Marms, Teachers, & Governesses
Bluestockings, Independent Misses, & Feminists Marriages of Convenience
(Not Your Usual) Conflict Nerds, Geeks, & Absent-Minded Professors
Friends in Romance One Foot on the Floor
Guardian/Ward Romances Tormented Heroines
Heroes in Pursuit Two-Hanky Reads

My choices seem pretty logical when you consider the kinds of romances I most enjoy. While a fan of hot love scenes, I also enjoy "One Foot on the Floor" romances, which eliminates the whole "will this author's love scenes satisfy?" question. I've long sought out stories featuring the hero and heroine along together, isolated indoors or in the elements. Arranged unions of any type - including marriages of convenience and mail-order bride stories, albeit mostly in historical settings - are ones I often look for, as are stories featuring absent-minded professor types or highly intelligent and/or independent women. Guardian/Ward Romances are ones I've often enjoyed, although this is our only Special Title Listing sans an accompanying image (the thought of this in reality is simply too icky), as are those featuring heroes in pursuit of heroines, a staple, it seems, in humorous romances. I also gravitate toward romances involving schoolmarms, teachers, nannies, and governesses, and just as I enjoy two ends of the spectrum involving sensual material, I often look for sad stories, the polar opposite of funny ones.

On the other hand, several of our lists are head-scratchers at the very least, or ones that absolutely make me shudder when I consider them. The vast majority of amnesia stories are ones I could do without, but I realize many readers adore our Amnesia...or Not? list (though the I Love Lucy "gobloots episode" photo and caption makes this one worth visiting, if only for a laugh). And as I revealed in a May ATBF segment, most Cross-Dressing or In Disguise stories don't pass my believability test. This may change as I get older, but romances featuring middle-aged characters aren't usually a major draw for me; neither are heroes and heroines with large age disparities, so I tend to put the kibosh on May-Dec/Dec-May and Older Couples (although Donna Simpson's A Matchmaker's Christmas is a big exception). While reading the occasional less attractive hero or heroine is fine, I don't tend to seek them out, which means our Beauty Is in the Eye and Plus-Sized Heroines lists are ones that stymie me...why are there so many readers who want a steady diet, so to speak, of characters found on either of these lists? And though I'm not opposed to the occasional less attractive lead character, I can count on two hands the number of romances in which couples reunite that I've either sought or enjoyed, making our Reunited and Troubled Marriages lists among those I don't use myself. Finally, because I'm not a fan of romantic suspense and my foray into reading mysteries failed, I don't go for our Suspense & Mystery list.

Out of the 64 lists we offer, then, there are fourteen that best fit my reading preferences and nine that don't make a good fit. So my questions to you are which of our lists best fit your tastes, and which are either head-scratchers or shudder-inducing lists to you? Putting the question a different way, which premises and/or character types most appeal to you, and which are those you don't care for in general?

I mentioned my love/hate relationship with some of our lists to Anne Marble, one of my ATBF co-columnists, and she responded that our Lists remind us that all types of themes can result in wonderful books - ie, that Donna Simpson book from the Older Couples list, Connie Brockway's All Through the Night from our Cross-Dressing or in Disguise list, etc. It's true that we often think of themes only in the ways that annoy us. For Anne, the new Best Enemies list is a great example of this. She askes, "How often have we complained about romance novels where the hero and heroine hated each other? Yet there are some great books in the Best Enemies list, reminding us that even a theme we usually detest can become attractive when a writer gives it a new suit."

Anne's thoughts about our Held Captive list is also interesting, reminding me that a lot of the bodice-rippers with the most "knuckle-dragging" heroes had this theme: "My first reponse when I saw the title of the list was to think of bodice rippers by authors such as Christine Monson. Then I checked out the list anyway and found titles by a wide range of authors."

Robin Uncapher, my other ATBF co-columnist, relayed to me a discussion she'd had with a friend who'd said, "People are so impressed that I spend my time reading Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, but the truth is that sometimes I just get in the mood to read a story where women are wearing long dresses." Robin thought that was pretty funny at the time, mainly because she knew exactly what her friend had meant, adding, "Sometimes I'm just in the mood for a story about a medieval virgin widow with amnesia. Oddly enough, when it comes to romance, you do get in these sorts of moods."

It's true...I think romance readers really do get in these sorts of moods. Which makes it all the more necessary for me to ask for your help with three of our lists. The first, for Special Heroines, was just updated, but here's the problem: when it was created (and the same goes for our old Special Heroes list, changed for the same reason into our Beta Heroes list), the definition of "special" made sense and was easier to understand than it is today for Rachel. Since she's the editor, we'd like your help in either better defining the list, or re-defining/re-naming it. The original definition for it was: "For whatever reason, it seems more difficult to find a heroine who satisfies us than a hero who satisfies us. All the more reason for this list, then. The heroines from this list are special for many reasons. They have saved their heroes. They are honorable and exhibit grace under pressure. These heroines don't whine or dwell on their pasts. Some seem flesh-and-blood and others are all-round capable, willing to go for what they want even if it's against the dictates of society."

Originally this was more or less as catch-all list for heroines readers loved but for indefinable reasons. And, heroines hadn't "branched out" nearly so far in 1996 as they have nearly ten years later. So there have now been many more heroines who save their heroes, are all-round capable, etc. Please take a look at the Special Heroines list, topped by a photo of the very special Audrey Hepburn, who might inspire one of you to set us on a new direction, perhaps the one suggested by Anne Marble: "Maybe what you're looking for is strong heroines. But there are different types of strength. Do you think what you need is one sublist for Quiet Strength and one for Kick-Ass Heroines?".

A much bigger problem is our Series (Family & Otherwise) list. Defined in this way - "This list differs from our other lists in that we cannot guarantee the quality of all the titles listed (obviously it is difficult for authors to sustain A or B quality throughout several books). Where there is a series of books and one received a less than stellar rating, it has been so noted. So, for this particular list only, Reader Beware!" - because of the continued growth of connected books, we abandoned the list back in 2002 with a plan to poll our readers for your favorite sets of connected books. Unfortunately, because the nature of polling puts in the forefront the well-known, the secondary appeal of our lists as containing lesser-known titles conflicted and we never did the poll. We'd like your help in determining the future direction of this list...if you can help us devise a method to combine the well-known with the lesser known, please let us know on the message board.

And then there is our Young Adult Fiction list, created nearly three years ago by the daughters of three romance readers - Blythe's daughter, my daughter, and the daughter of TRR reviewer Susan Scribner. All three are roughly the same age, and the original plan was to have them update their lists yearly. That, however, has not occurred, for the most part because my daughter thinks it's too nerdy to continue her part of the list. Then there's that many of us adult women also read and enjoy Young Adult fiction and, equally as important, that Lists editor Rachel Potter is somewhat of an expert on YA Fiction. Again I'm thinking some sort of combination list(s) here...some "top tens" of young adults as well as submissions and suggestions from Rachel and those of us who read YA novels (including myself). What do you think would help us create a better YA list?

2005 Purple Prose Parody Contest - The Results Are In! (Laurie Likes Books)

The results of our ninth annual Purple Prose Parody Contest are in! Most of you know that, based on a smaller number of submissions this year (fourteen as compared to 17 last year), I strongly considered canceling the contest so as to go out on top, rather than having it overstay its welcome and jump the shark. But as a result of your feedback, I can happily announce that 2005 will not be the final year for our PPP Contest. Look for it to continue for at least one more year.

I think author Nonnie St. George offered up the best argument for keeping the PPP Contest around:

Why keep PPP on AAR?

  1. If we couldn't poke fun of it, romance would explode, and then there would be pretensions splattered all over the walls.
  2. Only fellow romance readers get what's funny.
  3. Only fellow romance readers get that making fun of it doesn't mean we think it's stupid or that we don't love it like crazy.
  4. Quality is just as valid as a determining criterion as quantity. Why should it matter how many entries there are, if the entries still make you laugh your ass off. The Stooges made more movies than the Marx brothers. Does that make them better? (Er...you know the answer is no, right? Also, I have no idea if the Stooges made more movies. It just feels like it because they're so annoying. Which is possibly another point.)
  5. Parody is the first step on the slippery slope of writing romantic comedy, and it's fun to watch others fall down the rabbit hole. Well, ok, I think it's funny. But why shouldn't I count? Especially if we're moving away from that whole reliance on numbers thing.

Our PPP Contest has grown each year in its sophistication. We've gone from short, straight-out purple prose love scenes to lengthier and more elaborate parodies, book and/or author homages, merge-matic homages, book proposals, and Chick Lit parodies. This year Western/Frontier romances were suggested as a focus. Some of our 2005 entries took me up on the Western/Frontier challenge, and had there been a tie between a Western parody and a non-Western, the Western would have earned extra points. As it turns out, only a few entries were Western parodies, and though it was close for a while for one of them, in the end there was no tie.

Several of the fourteen entries received a goodly number of votes, and because of their popularity, they deserve a mention here:

Cynthia Marie managed, in Lord Mamasbuoy Takes a Bride, to incorporate the work of Joan Wolf, Julia Quinn, Amanda Quick, Mary Balogh, Catherine Coulter, and Pamela Morsi into one brilliant scene during which Neville Poundsinthebank, Lord Mamasbuoy, discusses with his mother while at Almack's whom he might take to wife. His mama, wearing a "towering purple turban with a long, long white feather...attached to the end of the feather was a realistic-looking wax vegetable," advises against "Lady Mary's latest" because "an alarming percentage of those girls turn out to have worked as prostitutes," and also the Quinn girl, whose "26 strapping brothers and brothers-in-law will beat you into a pulp if you fail to provide her with a lifetime of sparking, witty conversation." In the end, Lord Mamasbuoy is taken with Miss Ethel Edna Gladys Morsi, whose "genteel Arkansas mountain family has fallen on hard times." Ethel Edna even manages to capture mama's interest when she exclaims, "They say [in England] you can't swing a dead cat without flinging maggots on a Duke!"

The vampire hero's lisp was the big draw for many who voted for Amy Edwards' A Fang by any other Name. While Edwards is not the first to parody the sex appeal of a vamp by mentioning the lisp (and accompanying spit) that might grow along with fangs, even MaryJanice Davidson can't lay claim to lines like “My love for you ith like diarrhea—I jutht can’t hold it in” and “It’th a good thing I brought my library card, becauthe I jutht checked you out.” And though poor Stanislaus Vlad DarqueNight thinks he'll be getting some sweet virgin nookie that night, instead he ends up cuffed to the bed with a "virginal dominatrix of love" wearing a "skin-tight black leather bustier and g-string" under her "shroud-like gown." Perhaps the best reason for choosing this parody came from this reader: "This whole piece is a bit like a sore - you can't stop touching it."

Amy Edwards was quite prolific this year...she wrote a second parody, Widget Jones's Diary, in collaboration with Kate Johnson. Amy and Kate's entry was one of two that paid homage to Kenyon's Dark Hunters, but they did it as a merge-matic with Bridget Jones's Diary (some of you may remember that last year's winner was a Regency Chick Lit diary in the style of BJD). One of the biggest compliments these parodists received came from a reader who thought theirs was the "funniest entry in this year's contest...and I don't even like the books it pays homage to!" Another reader wrote that she "laughed till I fell off my Aeron Chair (oops, that’s Office Chick Lit) and snorfed tomato soup on my computer, a clear warning to She Who Eat Lunch at Her Desk (oops, Frontier Romance)?"

Laura Luke, who paid homage to Suzanne Brockmann in last year's contest, returned this year with her merge-matic homage to Erin Grady and Rachel Lee - Echoes of Conard County. Readers particularly appreciated Luke's descriptive skills: after being sprayed at a tanning salon, instead of celebrating a golden brown tan on her "doughy white skin," the heroine could "pass for the love child of George Hamilton and an Oompa Loompa." And, according to Luke, Mayberry had nothing on [Conard County]. "Barney Fife had morphed into a stud who was as glossy, brown and irresistible as a hot Krispy Kreme." As for the names and sheer hunkitude of those members of local law enforcement, "There was the G.I. Joe, B. J. Puma; Phantom of the Opera, Doolin Dalton; wealthy ranch owner, Owen Land; the Indian, Deputy Elijah Pariah; football star, Al D’way; and Deputy Doright, Bubba Beauregard. The introductions left Jess drooling, incoherent and near hyperventilation. If Brad Pitt walked through the door looking like he did in 'Legends of the Fall' or 'Troy' then her lobotomy would be complete."

Nona Massie's Only Me was a wonderful homage to Elizabeth Lowell's Only series, and in fact, was my personal choice in this year's contest. Each year I waver between several entries, deciding only at the very last minute which one will earn my vote. This time around, as soon as the submission deadline passed, I voted for Only Me. That doesn't mean many other entries weren't fabulous - I too adored Lord Mamasbuoy, and thought that Boinking the Highlander and Mr. Soprano Takes a Trip were vastly underappreciated. Because I enjoyed Lowell's Only series I wouldn't go so far as one voter, who wrote, "Excellent parody of Elizabeth Lowell, whose alpha heroes were as dumb and prejudiced as rocks," but I laughed until I cried when I read: "The Moron boys were not jealous. Whichever of them was the protagonist at the time could be the greatest. The non-protagonists would be compensated by wives who baked for them. Jealous, no. Misogynist, yes." And who could forget the hero's "giant, inexhaustible stallion, Metaphorical Penis"? Apparently not one voter, whose ballot listed Massie's entry even though she herself submitted a parody this year.

The above are listed in no particular order, but the time has come to reveal which of those highlighted entries is our actual winner. The lead changed between Widget Jones's Diary and Only Me many times, but in the end the prize goes to .Amy Edwards and Kate Johnson for Widget Jones's Diary! Readers who chose it felt this parody was a hilarious melding of the writing style of Bridget Jones' Diary and included common elements of the Dark Hunter novels. I myself haven't read Kenyon's series, but after editing a review a few days ago for her most recent, I went back and read Widget again. Now I get it! Here's a brief excerpt of the winning entry, so all of us can enjoy it again:

Thursday 1 January.

201 lbs. (allmuscle), 3rd degree burns, 2 (good start), blood units 12 (Acheron’ll have my ass), Daimons slain 1 (died laughing, must work on slaying technique), jokes about being man named Widget, 1000 (mostly Talon).

7:00pm. Crawl out of bed. Pull back curtains.

7:01pm. Grah!! Sun not down. Bloody hand crispy. New Year off to bad start. Going back to bed and starting over.

11:45pm. “WIDGET!! Get your ass out of bed and get to work!”

Hate Acheron. So bossy, just because he’s the boss. Roll out of bed for second time and look for clothes, though is shame to cover body like this. Will make up for it by posing seductively whenever females nearby.

12:30am. Stupid police think I’m soliciting on Bourbon Street. Why? Why? Attempt to explain that multitude of concealed medieval weaponry is required uniform for Dark-Hunters.

12:32am. Police think am kinky, bondage/dominance slave or similar.

12:35am. Am wearing leg irons. LEG IRONS. Is insane for police to waste money on capturing me when are dangerous monsters out there to catch instead.

12:37am. Is also insane that am madly powerful creature of the night yet cannot break out of cell. Note to self: renew gym membership.

1:15am. Leg irons actually rather sexy. Perhaps being kinky bondage/dominance slave has possibilities.

1:25am. Apparently cellmate agrees. Wish would cross legs or something. Don’t need to see that sort of thing. V. disgusting.

Congratulations, Amy and Kate! We made no dispensation for having a writing team win our prize for the year, so it will have to be split among you. Amy tells me that Kate lives overseas, "out of slapping range," so she will simply "lie and say the makeup colors wouldn't suit her or the compacts were broken or deny I ever received any prize." That's the spirit, Amy!

Time to post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions in addition to others that may have arisen out of your reading of the column:

Are you familiar with our Special Title Listings? Do you find them useful? Have you ever submitted a title for inclusion on one of the lists? If you find them useful or not, why? If you've ever submitted a title, what was your reason for doing so? Have you ever thought of contributing but then changed your mind, and, if so, why? If you've never used or contributed to our Lists, what would induce you to change your mind?

Those of us involved in the creation and update of the Lists greatly enjoy coming up with just the right photos and cartoons to accompany them. Is this something you enjoy when you visit the Lists? Which, if any, are your favorite images? Are our choices too nostalgic, sometimes too snarky, or "just right?"

How often do you go on mood-related/theme-related reading gloms, where you end up reading/wanting to read several governess or mail-order bride or two-hanky reads in a row? Have you had this experience in the last year, and if so, which books under which mood/theme did you seek out and read?

Which of our 64 lists best fit your tastes, and which are either head-scratchers or shudder-inducing lists to you? Putting the question a different way, which premises and/or character types most appeal to you, and which are those you don't care for in general? And, which ones are we missing? (A couple of lists are under construction at this time, btw - Rags to Riches and Inter-Ethnic Romances.)

Anne and I mentioned that we've found some gems among themes we'd never thought we'd enjoy (ie, All Through the Night when I don't generally believe in "disguise" books, certain Held Captive books for Anne). Have you had that experience, and if so, which themes, and which books?

Given the current difficulties with Special Heroines, Series (Family & Otherwise), and Young Adult Fiction, what solutions do you propose to help us handle each unique "problem list?"

How did you like the outcome of this year's Purple Prose Parody Contest? Which entry did you like best, and why? Did you vote, and if not, why not? Is this a feature you look forward to each year, and if you've ever considered submitting an entry but did not, why didn't you? What suggestions do you have for next year's contest since we'll be keeping it around at least through year ten?

 

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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