January 16, 2006 - Issue #215

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Robin's annual Buried Treasures column is a wonderful way for us to kick off our annual reader poll. Robin first wrote about buried treasures in 1999, and she's handled the column somewhat differently each year. This year is possibly the most unique in that while she shares with you some of our staff's buried treasure books from 2005, she didn't solicit reader input in preparation for the column. Instead, once you all have posted titles and descriptions on the ATBF Message Board, we'll be adding an addendum to the column. Both the column and its addendum should be of great help in helping you remember some lesser-known gems from the year - and to provide some incentive to perhaps read a couple of books before polling ends at midnight on February 19th. Our reviews database should also prove useful in this regard; via power search you can look for each of the categories we discuss below.

Today, btw, is also the day we kick off our annual Isn't It Romantic? contest.

2005 Buried Treasures (by Robin Uncapher)

Wow, it’s that time again! Time to look over the books we may have overlooked in 2005 in hopes that one or more might make a candidate for AAR's annual reader poll.

In 1999 I wrote the first ATBF Buried Treasures column in hopes that readers would read some of the recommended books before they voted in our annual look at the best (and worst) in romance novels for the previous year. My inspiration was the New York Times annual list of the best books of the previous year. That long list of novels and nonfiction books provides NYT reviewers with the opportunity to plug those little known books that never made the paper's best seller's list but are, in the reviewers’ opinion, more worthy of note.

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This makes more sense than it might seem because the paper's best seller list is a bit of a stacked deck (though certainly the Times itself is not stacking it and looks rather condescendingly on many of the books that make the list). The problem with the list is that getting onto it usually requires more than a little strategy on the part of the publisher. A few years ago at the RWA Conference I listened to a presentation by bestselling author Lisa Gardner on the ins and outs of becoming a best selling author. According to Gardner writing a compelling book that sells a lot of copies is only the start. To become a best selling author, an author has to be positioned for success. It’s not just advertising and being reviewed. The print run of an author’s book has to be large enough to put her in the running. A new romance author with a print run of 8,000 books is not going to make the list even if every one of her books is sold. Naturally her publisher will be delighted and such a track record bodes well for her next contract, but unless there is some compelling reason, the book will probably not go into a second printing.

Fortunately for all of us, the online romance reading community has made hearing about good mid-list books far easier than it used to be. Ten years ago even the most committed of romance readers would have been daunted by the task of reading hundreds of books by unknown authors. Since there was no objective reviewing publication at the time, readers had to take their chances or stick with known authors. Readers of the one well known review publication (and we all know who I’m talking about) spent a great deal of time trying to read between the lines to determine whether a book was worth buying. Before I found All About Romance, I remember being in the same position. Hmmm, does “Lovers of witty heroines will enjoy the charming banter of this pair,” mean that I will be reading about another Darcy and Elizabeth? Or is the reviewer trying to tell me, ever so subtly that the two never stop fighting over nothing? Does the rating “good” mean “good” or does it just mean that the reviewer believes that nothing really bad gets published?

Usually I begin this column with a review of my own reading year, highlighting the authors whom I hope you will read and the books you may consider voting for. Although I do have a few books to mention, I have to admit that this year was probably my weakest for reading romance. Everyone occasionally has a year like 2005 was for me. It was one of those years where a lot of things get in the way of reading and your concentration goes right out the window. Don’t get me wrong. Many, many people had worse years than my 2005. My family is intact. My husband and children are healthy and everyone is doing better. But 2005 was a year for serious illness in my family, divorces among family and close friends, and a whole range of problems that I never anticipated when I first got pregnant fifteen years ago. (People told me, but did I listen?)

To get away from some of the stress I read a lot of old romance novels by my favorite authors. Julia Quinn’s To Sir Phillip With Love, the story of a pretty vivacious woman, Eloise Bridgerton, who begins a romance by correspondence with Sir Phillip Crane, was as funny and charming as I hoped it would be. Julia Quinn has a timeless sense of humor. Her characters laugh and make fun of the same things that we laugh at today and yet they do not seem present minded or overly modern. Quinn’s humor is nearly always based in character. The pompous stuffed shirt, the domineering old woman, the silly ingénue are stock characters but Quinn’s wit saves them from stereotype. Similarly Jessica Benson’s old DIK Lord Stanhope’s Proposal proved funny and dry.

I also read a fair amount of nonfiction this year. My favorite nonfiction book is MJ Andersen’s Portable Praire. MJ Andersen grew up when I did, in the 1950s and 60s, but she grew up in a tiny town in South Dakota. The book is both a memoir and a rumination on the meaning of home. Andersen's home town of Plainville is the kind of place that many of our romance heroines escape to in hopes of escaping that pesky $150,000 a year advertising job. But life in Plainville, like life in many small towns, was actually more precarious than in a big city. Andersen’s parents ran one of two tiny newspapers in a town that could only reasonably support one. There were no large offices or factories to fall back on for a job when the business soured. And day to day life could be daunting. South Dakota’s climate was so harsh that many of the plants grown by farmers were initially exported from Siberia. There’s no question that the children did well. Andersen herself won a scholarship to Princeton. But her struggles to acclimate herself to the more crowded world of the East Coast after growing up on the prairie will resonate with anyone who leaves home to live in a far away place.

I absolutely loved this book and but I have hesitated telling you about it for one reason. MJ Andersen is my sister-in-law. Nevertheless, if you would like to spend a little time reading about a real woman, who grew up in a real small town, I highly recommend Portable Prairie.

I have two romance buried treasures to recommend. The first is With Child by Janice Kay Johnson. With Child is the story of a pregnant widow, Mindy, who falls in love with her fallen husband’s best friend, Quinn. It’s a story with a believable premise. Quinn always resented Mindy, presumably for her silliness, but it's pretty easy to see that the problem is probably his jealousy over the place Mindy took in Dean’s life. Mindy, who always sensed Quinn’s disdain, has no plans to continue the friendship after her husband’s death. But fate takes over when Mindy develops preeclampsia and desperately needs help. Quinn is the only one who can provide it and the two become close in spite of themselves. What results is not only a love story, but an examination of the relationship that each of them had with Dean and a re-evaluation of Dean’s personality by each of them. With Child is the kind of series romance I look for - it’s a book about two people I could meet in my own neighborhood. While the cover and the blurb on the back might make the casual browser believe its just another baby book, the writing and the characterization make it much more.

My second buried treasure of the year is Lydia Joyce’s Music of the Night. Joyce's book begins with hero Sebastian Grimsthorpe, Earl of Wortham, vowing revenge against Bertrand de Lint for the rape of Sebastian’s illegitimate daughter. In the course of this plot, Sebastian determines that the a female companion traveling with de Lint, as the caregiver for his elderly aunt, had actually abetted the rape. He decides to take revenge not only on de Lint, but on the girl, Sarah, by seducing her. Sarah of course, is innocent. Her situation is pitiable. Not only is she impoverished, her face has been terribly scared by small pox. She is an easy mark for the handsome Sebastian.

When I picked up Music of the Night I had begun to wonder whether, after years or stock romantic situations, I was impervious to the chemistry that an author can create between two characters. Not to worry. Lydia Joyce, a new romance author (this is her second book) knows how to create a love scene that even a seasoned romance reader will enjoy. Joyce’s voice is fresh. She takes the time to tell you about, the smells and the sights of 19th century Venice, where the story takes place. Reading it I was transported back, not only to my only memories of Venice, but to the EM Forster’s A Room with a View (and the movie by the same name) and to Julia Markus’s Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, much of which also takes place in Venice.

I asked Blythe Barnhill, AAR’s Managing Editor, as I do every year, to tell me about her reading year of 2005. Here are her thoughts on the past year:

When I set out to write about my reading year, I generally look back at my last few reading years so I have a point of comparison. Since I've been doing this for several years now, I've noticed a certain sameness; I always wish I had read more, and I always have a goal to read 100 books again. Unfortunately, I missed the mark by even more this year. I ended up with 70 books, a very low number for me (eleven less than last year, to be exact). By category, the books I read break down this way:

12

10

9

7

6

6

5

5

Contemp or Contemp Rom Susp

Eur Hist

Trad Regencies

Non-Fiction

Series Romance

YA Fiction

General Fiction

Mystery

2

2

2

1

1

1

1

Biographies

Chick Lit

Amer Hist

Alt Reality Romance

Time Travel Romance

Medieval Romance

SF Romance

I have to confess that I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the Harry Potter books, which undoubtedly left me less time to read other things. It's a little odd for me since I am not much of a re-reader in general, but I figure there are worse vices.

Gradewise, this was actually an unusually good year for me. My only official DIK of the year was for a book I actually reread in late 2004 (Cheryl Sterling's What Do You Say to a Naked Elf?), so it's not counted in my official numbers. As always, I only grade books I review, but I was astonished to see I read more B books than anything else. For me, Cs usually lead the pack. My grades broke down this way:

A
0  
B
13  
C
9  
D
2  
F
1

I'd consider several of the B books worth mentioning, among them Jo Beverley's A Most Unsuitable Man, Lydia Joyce's Veil of Night, Eugenie Seifer Olsen's The Pajama Game, J.D. Robb's Origin in Death, Dedication by Janet Mullany, and Crazy Hot by Tara Janzen. All of these were memorable reads for me. I had the worst luck with series romances. While I was looking at my list of 2005 reads, there were several books I couldn't immediately categorize (I write down title, author, and grade, but not sub-genre). When I went to look them up, I discovered that all were series romances.

As for my goals for next year, I might just scale back a bit. I'll shoot for 100 books (why not aim high?), but in the immediate future my goal is to read a few more 2005 books before it's time to take our annual read poll, just in case they are favorites. Music of the Night by Lydia Joyce, The Courtesan by Julia Justiss, and Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase are all on my immediate TBR pile.

 

2005 Buried Treasures

As I always do, I asked my friends at AAR which books they would select as buried treasures. Not everyone participated, and some categories are better represented than others. In several instances that's because the most favored books were either written by established authors or were talked about quite a bit and therefore aren't buried treasures.

Medieval

  • The King's Mistress by Terri Brisbin
    According to Lynn Spencer, "Terri Brisbin writes wonderful medieval romances and has been flying below the radar for several years." In her 2005 release, a strong story coupled with an unusual heroine - she'd not only been a mistress, she'd borne a child - set it apart from the rest. Lynn was engrossed in this one from page one.
  • A Fragile Trust by Helen Kirkman
    Jeanne W loved Kirkman's unique writing style of using very little dialogue to force the reader to determine the characters' feelings through their actions in this story of a young woman living in a kingdom conquered by the Vikings in the Dark Ages of England. At great risk to herself and against her personal dislike, she tends to an injured English warrior, and their admiration of each other leads to an intense attraction. Jeanne was so impressed by this author's reflective writing style - which required a careful and closer reading, resulting in a more intense, deep emotional bonding of a couple than usual - that she plans to glom her backlist.

Traditional Regency

One could easily argue that any traditional Regency is a buried treasure, but we offer these two as buried treasures.

  • Dedication by Janet Mullaney
    Blythe Barnhill liked this unusual, "hot rated" traditional Regency about a 37-year-old woman and a 43-year-old hero who is a grandfather
  • A Singular Lady by Megan Frampton
    I liked this witty trad about an impoverished but very resourceful young woman who decides to marry for money and accidentally falls in love with an earl whom she mistakenly believes is poor. The chemistry between leads is excellent. The author is fond of literary references and readers who get a kick out of reading about very smart people will like this book. Megan Frampton is a former AAR reviewer.

European Historical

  • The Care and Feeding of Pirates by Jennifer Ashley
    Lynn gave this book an honorable mention. She wrote that Ashley "has a distinctive voice, her stories are consistently good for the most part, and her book this year was no exception."
  • The Duchess' Next Husband by Terri Brisbin
    Linda Hurst loved this romance about a duke who discovers he has just a few months to live and focuses his attention on producing an heir with his wife.
  • Gilding the Lily by Nicole Byrd
    Ellen Micheletti recommended this story of a a young woman who must learn the manners of a lady after leading a traumatic life, with the hero who loves her. Most of Byrd's books are in a series, but can be read separately. Until now, Nicole Byrd was a mother/daughter writing team, but in this instance, solely Cheryl Byrd Zach as Michelle Nicole Place is trying her hand with contemporaries. Even so, says Ellen, "the style hasn't changed; Byrd's books are smoothly written romances with a touch of suspense."
  • The Veil of Night by Lydia Joyce
    As Laurie detailed in the previous ATBF, this strong debut features a 32-year-old spinster who's been around the block before. She accepts a wicked invitation to live with a mysterious Lord for a week to get her brother out of financial trouble.
  • Music of the Night by Lydia Joyce
    I wrote about this book earlier in the column, which both Lea Hensley and I loved. Sandy Coleman wrote our DIK review of the book upon its release.
  • The Lily Brand by Sandra Schwab
    Lynn suggested this book, which begins in France after the Napoleonic Wars when Lily's cruel stepmother purchases a prisoner for her. Lily is later mortified to meet him in society. Lynn liked Schwab's book because the tone was unique and "captured the redemptive power of love so well."

American Historical

  • His Second Hand Wife by Cheryl St. John
    Ellen loved this turn-of-the-century story about a man who offers a home to the pregnant widow of his half-brother.  Noah, the hero is scarred so badly he doubts that any woman could love him.  In her review Ellen wrote, “I don't know when I've been so touched by a wounded hero as I was when reading this book.” Laurie was also a fan of this book, and a fan in general of St. John's westerns for Harlequin, which she believes are very underrated.
  • Murder on Black Friday by P.B. Ryan
    P.B. Ryan is aka Patricia Ryan, and while this book isn't a romance, it's still a genre title, the fourth book in a mystery series with, according to Rachel Potter, "characters that have more compelling sexual angst and tension than those found in many romances." The series is set in Gilded Age Boston.

Contemporary

  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evie by Marianne Stillings
    Linda recommended this contemporary comic romance with a hero and heroine stuck in an Agatha Christie type situation; they find themselves partners in a treasure hunt designed by an eccentric millionaire.
  • Leaving Normal by Stef Ann Holm
    Lea adored the firefighter hero in this book. Even more than that, though, she "appreciated the gradual development of a rich relationship between a younger man/older woman who are friends first." She found that this character-driven contemporary "needed no secondary plot lines to sustain [her] interest."
    Someone to Believe by Kathryn Shay
    Lea loved this book about a young woman committed to ending gangs, and the U.S. Senator from New York.

Romantic Suspense

This category contains only one title, and a quick look via power search of the romantic suspense novels confirms that, the highest rated books in this area were written by major authors and were widely discussed, and that 2005 didn't seem an altogether banner year for romantic suspense. Just one romantic suspense novel published in 2005 earned DIK status.

  • Crazy Hot by Tara Janzen
    Blythe and Laurie both recommend this book, the first in what Blythe calls a "Brockmannesque" series. In this romantic suspense between a paleontologist and a former bad boy turned hero and member of the top-secret Steele Street, the chemistry is explosive, and Laurie compares the hero's desire for the heroine on a par with Linda Howard's heroes.

Series

  • With Child by Janice Kay Johnson
    Earlier I wrote how much I liked this book. Ellen liked it too, adding, "I had very bad luck with most of the series romances I read in 2005, this was excellent, and more like a full length novel condensed, but with more power and poignancy than any number of long novels I've read." Ellen has been glomming Johnson for a couple of years.
  • Blindsided by Leslie LaFoy
    Rachel liked this book about a slightly older couple. The ex-hockey player hero's sense of humor earned the book major points, and Rachel thinks this is a strong introduction to LaFoy, who usually writes single titles.
  • Forgiveness by Jean Brashear
    Leigh Thomas loved this book, describing it as “a flawed, yet powerful book that moved me more than anything else I read in 2005. It's the story of one deeply tortured and imperfect woman's struggle to deal with her past actions, the pain it caused her family, and her continuing guilt. The characters are complex, the emotions are vivid and realistic, and I read most of it with a lump in my throat. At a time when romance novels, particularly series ones, seem to be getting lighter and fluffier, this was a deeply emotional read that packed a real punch.”
  • Straight Silver by Darlene Scalera
    Leigh found this the "most distinctive series title" of the year. Reading more like a mainstream light mystery than a romance, the book "features a snappy tone and a quirky, earthy cast of characters." Leigh added, "While somewhat broadly drawn, the characters and the world they inhabit feel grittier and more authentic than many romances, and the author's style made for a fast-paced, very fun ride I devoured like someone breaking a fast.”

SF/Fantasy

More than one reviewer was so enthusiastic about Harlequin's Luna titles that they recommended the entire imprint as a buried treasure! Jane Jorgenson was the first to suggest this, so I've quoted her in full:

I'm going a little different route. I want to nominate a publishing line. The Luna books by Harlequin. The first few were a little ponderous but the line really hit its stride in 2005. One and all they were solid books and some were far more then that. I'd say that everything I've read, and I've read most of them, this year has been a B or better for their nice combination of fantasy with some romance thrown in.

C.E. Murphy, Laura Anne Gilman and Michelle Sagara wrote very good Urban Fantasies - I haven't read Disappearing Nightly by Laura Resnick yet, but it got a B from Leigh. And Robin Owens' Guardians of Honor is now the best thing I've read by her.

Best of the best: Poison Study by Maria Snyder and The Compass Rose by Gail Dayton. Both are fantasy novels in other worlds. Poison Study is about a young woman condemned to death for committing murder. She is given the chance at a reprieve but has to become the food taster for the Commander in charge of her country. Great Action and intrigue and a slow building romance with the man who holds the key to her survival. The Compass Rose by Gail Dayton is my favorite of the line. Very different then anything else I've read in a long time. Main character is Kallista, a woman soldier who inadvertently calls on the Gods. Now Godstruck she bears the sign of a compass on her neck. As she tries to figure out what her new status means, Kallista finds herself with a growing family. This family is made up of men who are similarly godstruck and who can't survive without bonding (read having sex) with Kallista. The love interest is Torchay, Kallista's second-in-command/bodyguard. Torchay loves Kallista but has to deal with what the gods have wrought in her life.

Every one of these is the first in what will be trilogies or series by the authors for Luna - a fact I love. I've been a long-time reader of SF/Fantasy but lately had given up on most fantasy novels because the women characters were not that interesting. I like this line from Luna because it's fantasy by women authors with women protagonists and there's always some romance thrown in.

  • What Do You Say to a Naked Elf? by Cheryl Sterling

    Blythe loved this first time book about a young woman with a boring job at an insurance agency who is captured by elves.

Chick Lit

  • Heavens to Betsy by Beth Patillo
    Rachel liked this book saying it “ was a fun blend of inspirational and Chick Lit and also included some interesting tidbits on what it's like to be a female minister and how low the glass ceiling is in that profession.”
  • If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend by Alison Pace
    Rachel also liked this book writing that “the best part about this book was how lovely and quirky the hero was and how long it took the heroine to figure out he had feelings for her.”
  • Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin
    Rachel wrote that “this one kept me up all night reading, but its morally problematic premise - fiance stealing by a best girlfriend who is the book's protagonist - was a trifle unsettling.”

Usually I post on the Potpourri Message Board asking for people's Buried Treasure titles to include in the column. I thought this year it might be more fun to start from scratch in the discussion, simply using some of our Buried Treasures to kick things off.

We would love to hear your thoughts on this years best, most unknown books. We’d like to avoid lists of books posted without description. Please post not only the name and author of the book, but an idea of the plot and why you liked it. Thanks so much. We are looking forward to reading about the buried treasures you liked in 2005.

Time To Post to the At the Back Fence Message Board:

Because each new year we devote quite a bit of column space to reflecting on the previous year's best reads, we don't want to duplicate ourselves and bore you. The last ATBF column focused on general reading from 2005, with emphasis on great books read that were published in prior years. This time around the focus is on buried treasures of the past year - those lesser-known gems that seemed to have been overlooked. We've started the discussion by sharing with you some of our own favorite buried treasures of 2005...what are yours? Please share titles and authors, a brief synopsis, and why you loved the book(s).

As mentioned earlier, we plan to create an adjunct page of your favorite buried treasures and will post it on the same day as we post interim results in our annual reader poll - February 6th.

We would like the vote in our tenth annual reader poll to be the widest it's ever been, so be sure to vote. The more of you who vote, the more valid the results. There are many categories, so take your time, but send in your completed ballot via our online form no later than midnight, February 19th.

 

Robin Uncapher,
with Blythe Barnhill and feedback from AAR staff

Reader Buried Treasure Choices for 2005

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

 

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