Issue #65 (January 1, 1999)

Happy New Year!

My hopes for each and every one of you and all your loved ones in this New Year are long lives, good health, and much happiness. If you've had a good year, may you have another one. If you've had a bad one, it's sure to be better this year. We can always hope, right?

The Second to Last Year of the Last Decade of the Millenium:
How did you fare in 1998 in terms of romance reading? I already indicated last time that my year was a mixed bag. Well, it was for readers as well, if the comments to my message board and the ballots received for 1998 favorites is any reflection on the romance reading community as a whole. First I'll share with you some comments readers made, and then we'll get into how the voting is going. Some of the categories have proven very surprising.

Reader Tanya wrote that sites such as AAR have helped her immeasurably by introducing her to such authors as Connie Brockway, Christina Dodd, Judith Ivory, and Carla Kelly. Tanya, like me until this year, had been sure she would never read a Regency Romance. Until, that is, this year when she discovered Carla Kelly, mostly due to the efforts of our own Ellen Micheletti. She writes that her new discoveries share an "intelligence in their writing and exemplary writing skills." She adds, "Whenever I try to convert someone over to romance, I pick the books that I feel are the best written. A well written book can exist in any genre; my love for Henry James and Edith Wharton is no different than my love of a good romance novelist, it's the skills of the writer that count."

Tanya felt she "rediscovered" both Nora Roberts and Mary Jo Putney this year, due to some of our reviews, and was very glad she did. However, she disagreed with awarding My Darling Caroline Desert Isle Keeper Status.

Not so with Sarah and AAR's Ellen Micheletti, both of whom thoroughly enjoyed My Darling Caroline. Sarah, who became a "serious" romance reader fairly recently after reading Mary Jo Putney's One Perfect Rose, found that the Internet provided great information on which authors to read and "which to stay away from." She very much enjoyed the debuts of Adele Ashworth, Alina Adams (as a single title author), and Diane Farr, and put these authors on her automatic buy list: Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, Connie Brockway, Loretta Chase, Julia Quinn, Barbara Samuel (aka Ruth Wind), Karen Harbaugh, Stephanie Laurens, Nora Roberts (aka J.D. Robb), Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Cruise, Janet Evanovich, and Elizabeth Bevarly.

Sarah is optimistic about her romance reading prospects in 1999; her tbr pile is growing even as her "student bank account decreases to zero." Happy reading, Sarah!

Our own Ellen Micheletti said, "1998 was a wonderful year! I discovered many new authors to look forward to. Michele Jerrot, Gaelen Foley and Adele Ashworth all published first books this year that made me sit up and take notice. On the downside, Mary Balogh will no longer be publishing traditional regencies and neither will Carla Kelly. That alone is enough to make me mourn. But I am an optimist by nature and I hope in 1999 other new authors will come on the scene and make me look forward to their books. Here's to 1999!"

Long-time AAR visitor Kathy has a more measured response to her 1998 romance reading. She read a whopping 302 books in 1998 and found only four romances to be true keepers. They are: Dream a Little Dream by Susan Elizabeth Phillips; The Last Hellion by Loretta Chase; Sleeping Beauty by Judith Ivory; and Annie's Wild Ride by Alina Adams. Of these romances, she wrote, they were:

". . .excellently written in terms of characterizations, setting and plot. They were also written with a singular intelligence. Ultimately what makes an exceptional book for me is the vividness of the characters. Do they live and breathe? For these four books, yes! The force of these books swept me out of my world into theirs.

"On the other hand, only 4 books out of 302 were keepers. Hmmm, that's not exactly a good average, but I think it's indicative of the herd mentality so pervasive in the romance genre. My reading life has grown smaller and smaller with the squeezing out of the mid-list authors and the variety of stories they write. I no longer check bookshelves for books that appeal to me. I first eliminate books I won't read. What's left is slim pickings and getting slimmer everyday.

"Still and all, I'm grateful for authors like Loretta Chase, SEP and Judith Ivory and many others whose work I've enjoyed in 1998 and continue to hope that they keep writing because I'll never stop reading romance."

The experiences of Kathy and myself in finding fewer romances we out-and-out adored was echoed in what Linda had to say. She was quite frustrated in her romance reading and read quite a bit of general fiction in 1998, as did I. As a fellow "die-hard romance nut", she was sad at how few books sparkled. After having looked forward to Jill Barnett's Wild, she read only one chapter before setting the book aside. She wrote, "Maybe I'm changing as a person or maybe it's just that the quality of romance is just not what it used to be. I started reading romance when I was 15. It fulfilled my girlish dreams and gave me hope to think that I just might find what these women in the books found. Sounds a little rose-colored, don't you think? But I did find a true love, maybe now I am just too particular and want something that is just not out there. I can't even describe this 'feeling' I look for. Who knows, maybe 1999 will bring a rush of new authors, who like me look for those 'feelings' and are able to put it better on paper. We can only hope."

Pam experienced that same frustration. Like Linda, she had a tough time finding "the right story that would just sweep me off my feet like some did in the past. I wondered if I just hadn't found the right author. Lately, I just have a feeling that unless Judith McNaught comes out with a new book, I may be floundering in a sea of mediocrity, waiting for that 'feeling' to hit me. I can't describe that 'feeling' any better than you could, but I know exactly how you feel."

Another AAR reviewer (and reviews editor), Blythe Barnhill, found that reviewing made her more analytical in her reading. She now knows more of what she likes and doesn't like, and found that reading authors she might never have tried otherwise was a fantastic experience. As those of you who read her reviews know, she is, as my daughter likes to say, "one tough cookie," and praise from her about a book or an author is high praise indeed. Her discoveries for the year include Samantha James, Lois Greiman, Amanda Scott, and Kay Hooper. She reserves her highest accolades, however, for Connie Brockway, Danelle Harmon, and Carla Kelly, about whom she writes, "will definitely be getting the glom award from me."

Reader Mary has become bookseller Mary, and so has found her romance reading growing, although she, like me, has begun a large number of romances that she just couldn't finish. She, like me, is reading more contemporary romance. She has also "devoured" the Anita Blake, Vampire Killer series by Laurel K. Hamilton. While not strictly romance novels, this series has a strong romantic component that seems to appeal to many romance readers, including our own Andrea Pool. (For those of you who are fans of this series and looking for discussions with other fans, there is a Laurel K. Hamilton listserv out there run by a member of AAR's own Aarlist. Her name is Chris Ely, and you can find out more about her listserv at http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Lair/9071)

An anonymous reader who referred to me as "the Betty Ford of romance," found that 1998 may, in fact, be the year she gives up on the genre. While she found our "straight-forward reviews" helpful, since visiting AAR she has "been able to read fewer and fewer romances." While I appreciate that she found our reviews helpful, I mourn the fact that this reader has possibly reached the point of no return. She wrote that she had found Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Christina Dodd, and Deborah Simmons through our site and didn't like a single one.

She added, "I highly disliked the awful The Vicar's Daughter and after Lord of Midnight I wouldn't even try Forbidden Magic - the excerpts were quite enough. Lady Be Good is not an option since Dream a Little Dream, and I guess I could go on and on, but the point wasn't really to trash these authors - they are not the problem. Obviously they are well loved and highly regarded for a reason. But when I realized that I was so disliking everything I was reading I had to face a fact. Lately I have seldom enjoyed a romance novel even though I've been reading them since I was a teenager. I never keep them around for longer than it takes me to get them back to the used book store and if I ever did happen to get excited about a particular book it either fizzled out in the end or took a strange turn somewhere that left me disgusted. Now I am puzzled as to why I struggle with them when I so much more enjoy reading history and informational books. I wonder if it is possible that romances are merely a habit that has taken a year of negative reinforcement for me to break. Plus the years of long months between readings and in which my list of favorite authors has dwindled down to none. My situation is too far gone to be considered a slump. I believe I am done for good."

As someone who does not believe herself (and does not wish) to be the Betty Ford of romance, this posting was tough to read, especially since my own tastes have changed so much in the past year. SEP's upcoming Lady Be Good is quite different from Dream a Little Dream, and I simply cannot imagine anyone not loving this book. But I want this reader to know that, much as it pains me, perhaps she needs a lengthy break from romance. Since she is reading non-fiction and enjoying it, she should read non-fiction. To me, it's the reading that counts. Perhaps after a year or so away from the genre, she'll be ready to try again. . . or perhaps not.

This reader's posting hit very close to home for me, in a couple of ways. First off, if I were to state my goals for this site, they would include creating a community for romance readers, encouraging the reading of romance novels and reading in general, and counterbalancing the rah-rah atmosphere of some romance publications and web sites with honest and entertaining discourse. To hear that our reviews are straight-forward and helpful is terrific. To hear that they may be "helping" romance readers to no longer read romance is horrifying.

Secondly, sometimes I feel as though AAR is a fully-loaded passenger train going someplace important, but that I want to stop driving it. My own romance slump throughout part of 1998 seemed ironic when juxtaposed to the hours I devoted to the site. Luckily, I read enough good romances at the end of the year to get out of my slump and to stop feeling sorry for myself about being a "victim of my own success."

It seems as though, for each of the past few years, my romance reading begins and ends with a bang, and sags at some point in the middle, a complaint I hear often enough about many romances. I haven't read as many books as I would have liked to in 1998, but I did read roughly 60 romances. Only one was a total stinker, although a good handful (seven) was quite bad. Many, many others were merely average, but even more were good. And, a few were great. This doesn't take into consideration those I didn't finish, but the few great ones and the many good ones tend to outweigh those average, bad, and horrible ones. I imagine they do for you as well.

The 1998 All About Romance Reader Awards:
Voting for the 1998 All About Romance Reader Awards has been underway since mid-December, and has surprised me in a good many ways. As I indicated in my last column, I had to leave some categories blank this year, categories such as Most-Hanky Read and Favorite Medieval. This is the first year I've been able to vote for favorite Regency Romance (note to potential voters: Regency Romances are not the same as historicals set in the regency period), so I wasn't too concerned about leaving the Medieval category blank, but leaving that Most-Hanky Read category blank was stunning. Even more stunning is that a good many of you who have already voted also left this category blank as well. And, among those of you who voted for Most-Hanky Read, there is absolutely no consensus! That's right - there has not yet been a particular romance receiving more than one vote so far in this category.

Granted, we are still in the early stages of voting, but this is amazing to me, especially because no particular romance stood out in my own mind of those I read with 1998 pub dates as being a most-hanky read. Nearly as surprising has been the lack of front-runners in most of the other categories. I can say that certain books and authors appear to be doing well so far, but only a couple of categories have strong contenders for the lead.

Here is a listing of those books and authors who have received the most votes thus far (in alphabetical order). And, because I'm feeling particularly devilish today, I am including not only those books and authors who are doing well, but have included those books and authors who are "winning" in the negative categories. You'll have to determine which are which, and AAR's ratings are not necessarily indicative:

TITLE
AUTHOR
AAR's GRADE
Annie's Wild RideAlina AdamsB+/B-
Baby, I'm YoursSusan Andersen
CherishCatherine Anderson
My Darling CarolineAdele AshworthA
IrresistibleMary BaloghC
Forbidden MagicJo BeverleyA
Lord of MidnightJo BeverleyA/B+
My Dearest EnemyConnie BrockwayB+/B+
The Last HellionLoretta ChaseC
Catherine Coulter
Tell Me LiesJennifer Crusie
Jude Deveraux
A Well Favored GentlemanChristina DoddD
That Scandalous EveningChristina DoddA+
IllusionJean Ross EwingD
Julie Garwood
Simply IrresistibleRachel GibsonB
Laurel K. Hamilton
Texas GloryLorraine HeathA/A
Now You See HerLinda HowardC+/C
Sleeping BeautyJudith IvoryB-
Mine to TakeDara JoyA
Stranger in My ArmsLisa KleypasC/C
Devil's BrideStephanie LaurensA/B+
The CadEdith LaytonB+/C-
Her Norman ConquerorMalia MartinC
Nobody's DarlingTheresa MedeirosC+
Dream a Little DreamSEPB+
The RakeMary Jo PutneyA
To Catch an HeiressJulia QuinnB/C
Holiday in DeathJ.D. RobbA
Rising TidesNora RobertsA/B+
Sea SweptNora RobertsA/B
The Last RogueDeborah SimmonsA
The Elusive FlameKathleen WoodiwissD

Get Ready to Cast Your Vote:
Voting continues through January 31st, so please be a part of our yearly awards and cast your own ballot. I imagine the final results will surprise us all, given the votes cast so far. Whether or not the above-listed authors/books appear in the final tally is up to you; I've already cast my vote. I plan on providing updates, as I did last year, as voting progresses. Please note that if your ballot does not provide choices in at least six categories, it will not be valid, nor will it be valid if the votes cast are not for books published in 1998. And, if you vote for two choices in any particular category, only the first will be counted.

Very gratifying has been seeing how our assessment of 1998 romances stacks up next to yours. With some notable exceptions, many of your favorites were among ours as well. However, some romances that we loved have either not been read widely or perhaps not enjoyed as much as our reviewers enjoyed them. Before you cast your vote, please take a look at our AAR Reviews, most especially the ones we gave grades of A's or B's - our indexes may jog your memory about a gem read earlier in the year, or may give you some titles to add to your tbb (to be bought) list. Conversely, some of our D and F graded books may assist in your voting for Most Disappointing Read (a romance which started wonderfully and went downhill or a romance you keenly anticipated which fell flat) and/or Worst Romance. Don't be afraid to cast your vote in these negative categories, which also include Author You Gave Up On, Author Others Love That You Don't, and Most Purple Prose. Nobody but me will ever find out how you voted. If it helps, remember that nearly every "beloved" romance author has either "won" or received "(dis) honorable mention" in these categories in the past couple of years. Come on, if you can't dish with me, who can you dish with?

The remainder of this column is going to be devoted to the some of the categories included in the voting. While categories such a Favorite Romance and Favorite Medieval are self-explanatory, others require perhaps some discussion from me. Feel free to discuss any and all categories at length on my message board. For instance, if you are a lover of medieval romance, feel free to share why you love that particular type of historical.

The Most Luscious Love Story is that romance from 1998 that was not only enjoyable, but which featured the sexiest love scenes. For the purposes of balloting, your choice should rate highly on the blush factor. No "kisses," "subtle," or "warm" here - your selection should be "hot" or "burning." (To read about these designations, please click here or check out some of our reviews of romances you've read.)

The categories of Most Tortured Hero and Feistiest Heroine are ones most readers feel strongly about, but perhaps a reminder is necessary. If you vote, as many have already, for Gabe Bonner in SEP's Dream a Little Dream, as the most tortured hero in a 1998-published romance, I want this to mean that not only was he the most tortured hero, but that you also thoroughly enjoyed the book. The same goes for the feistiest heroine.

The Best Road Romance category is one I find myself explaining a lot. A road romance takes place, at least partly, on a journey. Whether the hero and heroine are on a wagon trail, cattle run, tracking down bad guys, being hunted by bad guys, or on a pirate ship, these romances all have a common premise - the hero and heroine are "on the road" (by land or by sea). Whether alone or part of a group, these romances feature heroes and heroines who spend a lot of time together, and most certainly much of that time is spent alone, just the two of them, battling the elements and perhaps each other, as they journey towards love.

The author who was your Favorite New Discovery doesn't have to be a new author, just one who was new to you in 1998. In many instances, newly discovered authors become authors you glom. As I indicated in the last issue of LN&V, glomming is that particular affliction that affects romance readers and sends us looking all over the place for an author's backlist. So, the Author Most Glommed is that author whose backlist (or partial backlist) you sought out in 1998.

Here's What I Need From You:
First and foremost, I need for each of you to vote in our 1998 All About Romance Reader Awards. Again, voting will remain open until January 31, 1999.

Now it's time for you to post to the Laurie's News & Views message board. Here are the questions I'd like you to consider responding to:

Your Romance Reading Year In Review - Talk about 1998 as a romance reader. Did you read mostly romances? Mostly books published in 1998? Were you pleased overall or disappointed overall in romances published in 1998?

The Disappearance of the Most-Hanky Read? - Are the lack of votes in this category so far indicative of something? I didn't read a 1998-published book that gave me a cathartic cry. . . did you? If you love this type of romance, talk about it. If you don't, why not?

What About Those Votes (so far)? - Have you read many of the books that other readers are voting for? Do you agree that they are the best (or worst)? In addition to casting your own vote, and perhaps changing how that list looks by the end of January, share how many romances you've read this year, and how many appear to be those books with "buzz."

Gotta Love Those. . . . - Are you mainly a series romance reader? Do you mostly read contemporaries? Perhaps you enjoy historicals set in the regency or read medievals almost exclusively. Tell us what you read and why, and if you've begun, as I have, to read more of a mixture, talk about that as well. And if you think you'll never try a particular sub-genre, share that too - I'm sure other readers will come up with great choices to try and change your mind!

Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books

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