Issue #54 (July 1, 1998)

Of Scotland & Man:
One of my favorite movies is The Secret of Roan Inishe. The story of a young girl's belief that the power of the sea, seals and selkies will bring back the baby brother it stole from her is undeniably a modern-day fairy tale. While this magical and mystical movie delights the inner-child in me, the most powerful scene involves that young girl talking to a distant relative she's been warned away from while he's gutting fish. This man, considered dangerous by the young girl's grandmother, wears an Irish fisherman's sweater as he's cleaning fish. He seems to know more about the sea and what's out there than anyone else the girl has talked to. He's dangerous, he's primitive, he has knowledge of the unknown, and he's forbidden. Forget that he smells of fish and is a peasant. He's a black sheep. He's a Black Irish black sheep. What could be sexier?

It's a primal male essence thing going on there that so appeals to me, and its mystique is caught up in things Irish, and things Scottish. After all, I doubt I'd find attractive a man from Georgia wearing a kilt, but make him a Scot and I just melt. An Irish fisherman gutting fish? I don't even like to eat fish, much less smell of it. But this Irishman was sexy in a way that a fisherman from Seattle just wouldn't be for me.

Last year author Linda Madl wrote on The Allure of Scotland for me, and more recently, Barbara Samuel aka Ruth Wind wrote of The Appeal of Everything Irish. In thinking about the Romance Top Ten I want to create with your help, I started to think about my favorite romances and some possible common threads. My brain started to percolate with ideas.

Why do I love romances set in Scotland and Ireland, particularly Scotland? I've been to both, and though I love Ireland's beauty, it is Scotland, with its harshness, that most appeals to me. If there's anything sexier than a Black Irish black sheep, it would be a Highlander.

Many romance authors find Scotland as a locale and Highlanders as an archetype to be similar to the old west of the 1800's and the cowboy archetype - the roughness, the unknown, the danger. Admittedly, Highlanders do more for me than cowboys and sheriffs, but I understand the appeal of the latter for others.

There's no way for me to separate the appeal of the setting from the appeal of the man, and heroes are really what draw us into romance. Scots romances for me, and possibly or Irish romances for others, crystallize our heroes into perfect archetypes. At least that's what I think. Let me know what you think when it's time to post to the message board below.

And, if you have some favorite romances set in Ireland, or want to see the Scots Romances Special Title Listing, please do so. Anne Ritter and I want to transform this list into a Scots & Irish Romance list, and hope you'll contribute. (Irish Romances were added in August 1998.)

The Arranged Marriage:
In the last issue of this column, I asked readers to post about their favorite types of romances, and one of those many wrote in about was the arranged marriage. So while my brain was busy percolating on heroes, I started thinking about love and marriage. The old world view of marriage had little to do with love beforehand. Indeed, we know it was an afterthought, if a thought at all. Americans, at the very least, and modern Europeans as well, find this old world view distasteful, preferring to predicate marriage on love.

In many if not most historical romances, whether set in the medieval period, or later, in England or Europe, or Australia or the U.S., the hero and the heroine marry first and fall in love later. We love this, we find this romantic, and yet, in real life this is distasteful for us. Just as a dangerous, primitive, forbidden man works as a fantasy for us, so does the arranged marriage, marriage of convenience, of mail-order-bride romance. And yet, in real life, we would not want any of it, not the dangerous man, and not the arranged marriage. We've talked before about reality versus fantasy and the dangerous man, so let's talk about reality versus fantasy and the arranged marriage when it's time to post to the message board. And, keep posting about your favorite types of romances as well - I really want to develop that Top Ten list!

Random Thoughts on Sarah's Child, or, A Different Type of Hero:
I went on a ubs run last week, and was directed to the Linda Howard section by my friendly book store owner. She started raving about a particular book and I asked to see it. I stopped cold when I saw the title - it was Sarah's Child, a book which AAR Reviews Editor Marianne Stillings awarded a D.

Making matters more intriguing was an e-mail Ellen Micheletti, an AAR Reviewer and Historical Cheat Sheet Editor recently sent me about the same book. Let's use Ellen's comments as a jumping off point when it's time to post to the message board:

When does a wounded hero (or heroine) become a self-pitying whiner? Marianne and I discussed this after we had both finished Linda Howard's Sarah's Child. This book is beloved by many readers, but Marianne and I had the same reaction to it. Rome is a big baby, and Sarah is a doormat.

Yes, Rome has suffered just about the worse loss a man could face, his wife and two small sons were both killed by a drunk driver. Since Rome is a man who loved hearth and home and was devoted to his family, this loss has hurt him to the core. He takes refuge in work and even tries some casual sex, but he is frozen inside.

Sarah is an executive secretary in the office where Rome works. She and his dead wife were childhood friends and she was "Aunt Sarah" to Rome's sons. Sarah has always loved Rome dearly and has remained unmarried and a virgin although she has never let him know her feelings. When Rome proposes marriage to Sarah, with the provision that she never have children, she accepts.

Sarah is infinitely patient with Rome. She puts up with his sulks and moods and does everything in her power to make their home comfortable and happy. Despite himself, Rome begins to feel happy, and of course he is guilty over it - but gradually Rome begins to let go of his grief. He realizes that he loves Sarah and she loves him and they have a very good life together. Rome even begins to sleep with Sarah. He had been in the habit of having sex and then going to sleep in his own separate bedroom, but now he spends the night with her.

Up to this point, we could empathize with Rome and understand Sarah's patience with him. But just when it seemed that Rome and Sarah would finally be happy together, she gets pregnant. Sarah had had a bout of flu and had been unable to take her birth control pills. What does Rome do? He freezes her out entirely. First, he tells her to have an abortion. Sarah refuses that outright. Then he tells her he will have nothing to do with the child and does not even want to see it. Yeah - as if Sarah can keep someone out of sight and hearing for about 20 years! Sarah goes through all the pangs and inconveniences of pregnancy alone. Rome lives with her, but goes back to sleeping in the spare bedroom. Throughout this ordeal, Sarah is patience on a monument but she is living under constant stress and strain. Does Rome spare a thought as to how his attitude is affecting Sarah - of course not! He just hugs his hurt to himself like a child with a blanket.

Sarah has her child, a little girl who looks just like Rome, but Rome still refuses to even look at his daughter. Sarah loves her child and walks on tiptoes trying to keep her out of her father's way. Finally one night Sarah, tired to her bones, does not hear the child crying and Rome has to go in the nursery and take care of her. He takes one look at his daughter and the dam breaks. He takes her in his arms and cries all the hurt out. Now he is fine and they are a family, but I was ready to throw Rome against a wall. He has put his wife, whom he professes to love, through months of mental anguish and left her alone during a time when she needed him so very much. Why? Because he had lost his children and he might lose this child just like he lost the other ones, so he ignores this child's existence. And Sarah just takes it. She goes through months of pain and suffering and when big baby Rome finally comes to his senses all she says is, "You were hurt, I understand!" What a doormat!

Contrast Rome's behavior with the behavior of these characters. These men have suffered too, but do they hug their pain to themselves and take it out on their lovers? No ma'am. In Carla Kelly's short story, Make a Joyful Noise, Peter Chard had a wife who was unfaithful to him when he was away in the army. When she died in childbirth, he could have disowned the child - but he didn't. Instead he accepts her and loves her and considers her as much his daughter as if she was his own flesh and blood. In Sweet Lullaby by Lorraine Heath, Jake Burnette was an illegitimate child who had been the victim (at his father's hands) of some of the most horrible abuse I have ever read about. He could have grown up bitter and hateful. But he doesn't. He marries Rebecca, knowing her to be pregnant by another man, accepts her child and loves him as his own. Jake remembers what is was like to be illegitimate and does not want his son to suffer like he had. In Breaking the Rules by Ruth Wind, Zeke Shephard was also the victim of an abusive father. He should have grown into a man who abuses his own children. But he doesn't. Jake loves children dearly, and when he falls in love with Mattie and she becomes pregnant, yes he is afraid, but we know, just as Mattie does, that a man who loves children as much as Zeke, deserves to be a father and will be a very good one.

All of these men, and Rome too, have suffered. But Rome was the victim of a terrible accident, while the others were all hurt by someone who should have loved them. Did they become bitter? Did they hate the world? Did they take it all out on someone who was convenient? They did not They put the past in the past and went on. No, these characters were not unmarked by their pasts, and they were not saints, but they did not deliberately hurt the one who loves them. Not like Rome hurt Sarah.

We've talked before about heroes who make us want to shout, "Get over it! Get over yourself!", and now we can talk about them again. But let's talk about those who have gotten over it. Let's talk about authors who do this well, and books in particular.

The Good, the Bad, and Both:
In Issues number 47 and 48, I brought up the concept of moral ambiguity and heroes and villains. I talked about heroes doing things for the right reason, regardless of the outcome (which often gets them into trouble) and said that villains do the wrong thing for the wrong reason. While villainy is most often cut-and-dried in romance, heroes and heroines aren't, and that's because authors write their lead characters to be morally ambiguous. And to write a morally ambiguous character is to write a complex character. Finally, I asked readers to write in about villains who become heroes, and whether that works.

Suzanne wrote in to say that Judith Ivory aka Judy Cuevas handles this sort of complexity well. She likes the journey, the process, and the growing in relationships Ivory's characters go through as her stories are told. As for books where villains become heroes, here are the ones readers wrote in about:

  • In The Dark Duke by Margaret Moore, Lord Elliott Fitzwalter is the villain. In The Rogue's Return, he is reformed and the hero (I've not read the latter, if you have and enjoyed it, let me know).
  • In Chandra by Catherine Coulter, Lord Graelam de Morton rapes Chandra's servant. In Fire Song, he is the hero (I hesitate to call him that because I despised these two books; if you liked them and/or Graelam, let me know!)
  • Tamera wrote in about a villainess who becomes a heroine. "In Lord Of The Storm, a futuristic novel by Justine Davis, the heroine's friend, Califa, starts the book as a top battle strategist who owns slaves and doesn't have a problem with "prostituting" them to friends. By the book's end, she has changed her whole outlook on the situation. Skypirate is Califa's story. Although I read these books awhile ago, I enjoyed seeing Califa's character grow. It is risky for an author to make a villain become heroine, but I felt Davis did a great job. I cared about the characters. I was very intrigued by this title because of the heroine's unusual past."
  • Tamera also wrote in about Connie Flynn's Shadow on the Moon and Shadow of the Wolf. The heroine in the latter is the villain of the former. Connie wrote AAR about this last year in a Quickie on Tormented Heroines.
  • Katy wrote in to say that "a good example of a villain who becomes a hero is Reginald Davenport in Mary Jo Putney's The Diabolical Baron and The Rake & the Reformer, released this year with revisions as The Rake. One of the things I really liked about the way Reggie changed is that all his change happened in the Rake and his alterations come because he takes a long, hard, ugly look at himself - and works like the dickens to change. And he still fails as he tries . . . I highly recommend it if you don't already have it.

If you can add to this list or this discussion, please post to the message board later on. And, if there are instances where the author failed to make the character transform (for instance, Graelem de Morton will always be a villain to me, not only for his behavior in Chandra, but for his behavior in Fire Song) from villain to hero, please post as well.

To Buy Or Not To Buy, In Hardcover, That Is:
As a reviewer, I sometimes have a hard time deciding whether the price of a book should affect my review. For instance, MIRA re-releases category romances of Jayne Ann Krentz at top paperback prices. The other day I saw a Nora Roberts romantic suspense title originally released in paperback now in hardcover, at a hardcover price. But what about those romance authors who have earned their way into the big time, which in publishing terms, translates into hardcover releases followed by a paperback release a year later? Are their books "better" and/or should these books be "better" than those books in paperbacks with prices that are so much lower?

I buy hardcover for very few romance authors, and those only because I have no patience for delayed gratification. I buy Garwood, Quick, McNaught, and Lindsey the day their hardcovers are released. I just can't help it. Even when I try to wait, I end up in that car, driving to that bookstore, and gleefully plunking down those dollars. For non-romance, it's Kathryn Lynn Davis, Anne Rivers-Siddons, Belva Plain, and Anne Rice. Why, sometimes it's just the act of ownership that is enough. I can recall buying KLD's last release the day it became available, but not reading it for weeks. I had to wait for the time when I deserved a special treat. Have you ever done that?

When I asked readers to write in about hardcover romances, I was flooded with responses. Here are some of them, starting with author Ann Josephson aka Sara Jarrod:

"As an author, I'd die to get published in hardcover - for the prestige if nothing else. The royalty percentages are considerably better than they are for mass market (normal-sized) paperbacks - and presumably there's the chance of making a bundle of money if one's hardcover book takes off.

"As a reader, I get a lot more upset if I don't enjoy a hardcover book I paid $20+ for than I do if I pick a $5.99 dud. For one thing, I don't buy books in hardcover unless their authors are at the very top of my list of must-be-reads (or unless they are good, good personal friends). This means that if I don't enjoy my rare $20 purchases, I'm angry not only because I don't like the book, but because I'm horribly disappointed in a story put out by an author I expected much better of.

"The list of authors whose hardback books I buy is extremely short - only two at the moment, down from a high of five at one time. One is a close friend whose historical romances I've always loved. The other an author who has inspired me most over the years since I started writing romances and continues even since she has moved on to general fiction."

An anonymous reader wrote that although she is an avid romance reader, she will "under no circumstances (even if some gives me a gift certificate) buy a romance novel in hardback." She prefers to buy literature such as that written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Toni Morrison in hardcover. Romances, she wrote, are fluff, suitable for reading at the beach, before bed, for relaxing and winding down.

On the lighter side, Tammy's decision to forego hardcover romances is "strictly an ergonomic decision." She doesn't buy hardcovers because they're too hard to read in the bathtub, which is her favorite place to read. This owner of a near-complete set of water-damaged Anne Rice hardcovers wrote, "Ever try to hold a hardcover one-handed? Or two-handed without resting it on your chest or stomach? 'Nuff said. It's also easier to travel with beloved paperbacks, in my opinion. Why add the weight of a hardcover to that carry-on?"

Emily likes knowing that when she buys a book, it helps the author's pocketbook. That's why she stays away from ubs's unless she absolutely can't find the book any other way. And, though it "pains" her to do so, she sometimes buys a single hardcover in lieu of three paperbacks. She adds that sci-fi/fantasy authors seem to hit the hardcover trail much sooner than romance authors do, where "the rules are different. It's a rare author who has the clout to make it to hardcover before they've published more than 15-20 books, with a certain number of best sellers (as in New York Times best sellers). So romance authors aren't making hardcover until the end of their careers. Because of all of this, my favorite romance authors are generally not published in hardcover, no matter how much I wish they were. . .The worst part of romance imprints not doing hardcovers except for the super-best sellers is that they're keeping romance as a backwater of publishing that is merely a cash cow. It's in the same backwater status SFF was in during the 30's thru the late 70's -- no respectable publication will review it, and no one respectable will read it. Slap that magic hardcover on, and it all changes... 'Literature' is published in hardcover, and the elite publications review it. Without that hardcover, romance authors will forever be relegated to the ghetto, just like teenage single mothers and other unsavory women."

Many readers took one of Emily's thoughts, and ran with it. Most romance authors being published in hardcover have quite an extensive backlist, so that by the time they're published in hardcover, the thrill is gone for many readers. Reader upon reader wrote that Jayne Ann Krentz aka Amanda Quick, Catherine Coulter, Julie Garwood, Johanna Lindsey, and Judith McNaught, among others, peaked prior to/or at their hardcover debut.

Other readers beg to differ, saying the emphasis is merely different, that as an author goes hardcover she must become more mainstream. Because we've had that discussion before, we don't need to have it again. But I've heard from many a reader who though Jennifer Crusie's hardcover debut Tell Me Lies was more Susan Isaacs a la Compromising Positions than her category romances.

Because romance readers are bulk buyers, the price factor becomes more critical. Many mainstream readers buy a couple of books a month as opposed to romance readers who buy a couple of books (at least) a week. Lynn is a bulk buyer who, like many romance readers, needs to feed her "book fix with paperbacks." In response to the question that authors who publish in hardcover being better than authors who publish in paperback, she wrote, "can anyone honestly stand up and say with a straight face that Jackie Collins is a better writer because she publishes in hardback?"

Lynn added, "Paperbacks have given me license to be impulsive and a little careless at times. If a book doesn't deliver, I may be peeved that I paid 5 or 6 dollars for it, but I don't feel as 'taken', and I know there's always another, better book waiting on the tbr pile. Plus, I can get approximately four PB's to every one HB title...and that means buying spree in my book! LOL. A ratio I can certainly live with."

With so many romances being published each month, it becomes more and more important to choose wisely. Some readers believe a hardcover romance should be the best of the best. Kay wrote that it's an exciting feeling to see a favorite author has gone hardcover, but since she reads so quickly, it's easy to feel cheated unless the book is a real gem. Chris echoed Kay's thoughts and wrote, "The only reason I buy a hardback is because I can not wait for the story. I feel cheated if this book is not a 5 star book to me. So I guess I am harder on hardback books. I do not believe that a reviewer should recommend a reader go out and buy a hardback unless that book is a 5 star book. Authors published in hardcover are supposed to be the best the genre has to offer." Sondrea too holds hardcovers to a higher standard. She wrote, "I expect the book to make me feel like I have not wasted my money. I expect the book to make me want to run out and sing its praises. When I read a paperback, I expect only to enjoy the hours I spend between the pages. When I find a keeper, I feel it is a bonus."

Many romance readers who find it hard to wait that six months to a year between hardcover and paperback release, use their libraries in the interim. They'll get on a list to check out the latest Lowell or Lindsey, then buy the book in paperback if it is fairly good. But most romance readers, while on the one hand glad some romance authors have made it into hardcover, giving the genre a boost, would rather it wasn't an issue at all, and whether to avoid it altogether or because they believe romance authors going hardback have either "topped out" or "sold out", buy midlist authors instead.

The Message Board:
It's time to post to the message board again. Here are the questions I'd like you to consider responding to:

Scotland, Ireland, & Men - Can you separate the man from the setting? Do you want to? Does Scotland, Ireland or the West particularly resonate for you? What are some of your favorite romances set in Scotland or Ireland? What is the allure of Scotland, Ireland, or the West for you?
The Arranged Marriage - Is this one of your favorite romance premises? Why is it that the arranged marriage, marriage of convenience, mail-order bride romance is so romantic given that it is based on a thoroughly unromantic premise of love after marriage?
The Romance Top Ten - What story lines are among your favorite? Let's build a top ten (or more) list.
Sarah's Child, or, A Different Type of Hero - We've talked before about heroes who make us want to shout, "Get over it! Get over yourself!", and now we can talk about them again. But let's talk about those who have gotten over it. Let's talk about authors who do this well, and books in particular.
The Good, the Bad, and Both - Moral ambiguity in romance characters gives us memorable heroes and heroines, but it can turn us off as well. What other authors/books did it well, and name names, please! And, which books/authors failed for you? Can you add to the villain-becoming-heroic list?
Hardcovers - To Buy Or Not To Buy - What can you add, if anything, to this discussion? And, are there any of you out there like me, who "save" a particular book until you "deserve" to read it?

Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
in conjunction with Ellen Micheletti

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