Issue #66 (January 15, 1999)

The Second Annual Isn't It Romantic? Contest:
Valentine's Day is coming up, and to celebrate romance, AAR is running its second annual Isn't It Romantic? contest. We want you to share with us your most romantic personal story. It might be quietly sweet, bittersweet, funny, or as gooey as marshmallow fluff.

Last year at this time I shared my own most romantic story and we held our first contest. Many entries were received, and the winner was reader Holly Garemore. To give you an idea of the types of entries that were sent in, I'll re-print Holly's story. It truly touched my heart:

In December of 1969, the Vietnam War was raging on. I was 16, almost 17, a junior in high school. Our local paper printed the APO addresses of servicemen that were from our area, so that people could send Christmas cards to the poor guys spending Christmas in such a horrible place. I looked at the list of names, decided I liked the name Ralph, and sent a Christmas card to him. He wrote back - turned out he lived about 8 miles from me, was 20 years old, in the Sea bees (construction branch of the Navy) and was spending the first Christmas away from his family.

His handwriting and spelling were terrible, so he asked if I'd like to exchange cassette tapes with him, instead of letters. All that winter and spring we sent tapes back and forth - often in his you could hear planes and missiles in the background. I would play the tapes for my family - since we hadn't met, they weren't terribly personal, and my mom, dad and brothers would add messages to Ralph. In late spring he got the news that he'd be home in early summer, and we exchanged pictures and made plans for him to call me when he got home.

The end of June, Ralph finally got home, and contacted me and made plans to come to my house. I'd just finished my junior year of high school. I was a nervous wreck about meeting him, even though we'd been taping for six months. He greeted me with a big grin and a hug, and sat talking in my mom's kitchen with us all afternoon, and invited me to the movies that night.

We never looked back after that, and we celebrated our 25th anniversary last May. We got married almost 2 years after he returned home from Vietnam.

I'll be determining the winner myself, and that lucky person will receive a $10.00 gift certificate from Amazon.com. Your entry must be emailed to me no later than February 8th. The subject line must read Isn't It Romantic? Contest and the body of your email should include your name, email address, and snail mail address, as well as your most romantic (which also must be true) story. Please do not post your stories to the message board; they will not be considered valid entries unless they are received as email. I'll be announcing the winner in my February 15th column, which is when I will also announce the winners in the 1998 All About Romance Reader Favorites. Voting for that continues through January 31.

Old versus New:
Not too long ago, I received a letter from reader Cathy, who, after looking at some of our reviews, wrote:

"I couldn't help but comment on several of them that are particularly harsh on our old favorites. I really started thinking about this. At one time, and still, Shanna was/is my all time favorite romance. I haven't read in many years and I admit it's probably because I wouldn't like it anymore. After all, I'm 38. I read it when I was at the very least, 19. At the time, I ate it up when Shanna breezed across the Atlantic aboard a ship carrying her to her own tropical island paradise. I was giddy when she was kidnapped by the pirates, but madly, passionately in love, when Roark fought the pirates and became the Pirate Captain. Then. . . off to the Colonies where she finds her criminal aka bondslave aka Engineer aka Pirate Captain is really a delightfully rich man in Colonial America! Wow - think about how crazy all that is. Has Woodiwiss changed much? Apparently not, but we have. And if it's us, should we really blame the author for still romancing big?

"Maybe this has already been covered, if so, are there archives of it somewhere? I'd like to see how others feel about this.

"I agree, Petals on the River was a little boring, but it wasn't that bad."

Earlier this week, I received a review of the reissued Come Love a Stranger. Ellen Micheletti, who has been reading romance for years, and who used to love Kathleen Woodiwiss, now finds that this type of book no longer works for her. Even though Come Love a Stranger is only 17 years old, she wrote, "it reads as dated and old-fashioned as. . .a 19th century melodrama."

In reflecting upon earlier statements in this column, I came across something I'd written more than two years ago. Back in 1996 I wrote, "Had I begun to read romance long ago, it is doubtful I would have glommed onto it as I did. The style I most prefer is more of the 1990's style of romance, conflict outside the h/h relationship, gentler heroes, less "epic," more humorous. A romance reading friend of mine will not buy any book that pre-dates 1986 for just these reasons."

Later in 1996, I reported, "Many readers said their old favorites don't work for them anymore - they're too dated in terms of style, tone, and character." I added, "When I reflect on my Desert Isle Keepers, they hold up. But then, all of them were written after the mid-80's, when the style of romance shifted from the 'old' to the 'new'."

At that time, readers and authors both told me they liked the direction romance was taking because of the breakdown of conventions, the broadening of the genre, and the better over-all quality of writing. Still, there was a wistfulness for that more "epic" style of writing. While I can't yet say whether or not these views still hold, reaction to the trend I detected last time on the lack of two-hanky reads in 1998 was strong. There most certainly is a certain wistfulness for this type of read.

My philosophy has always been to present both sides of an issue. So when Woodiwiss' The Flame & the Flower was reissued last year, I sought out two reviews. We presented both here, and ended up with the book being awarded Desert Isle Keeper status at the same time as it was given a grade of D by a newer reader of romance.

We've reviewed several of Woodiwiss' romances here; three of her older romances of which two are considered classics, and two of her most recent releases. Both The Wolf & the Dove and The Flame & the Flower were granted Desert Isle Keeper status. The Flame & the Flower, Come Love a Stranger, and The Elusive Flame also received grades in the D range.

Reviewers for this site have a variety of backgrounds. We range in age from 20 to middle age. Some of us began reading romance a few years ago and others among us have been reading romance for twenty years. No one who writes reviews here was "hired" because of their preferences; indeed, the only preference we share is that we like well-written books. But something curious occurred to me when I was looking at the biographies of our reviewers - many are quite young. Most are in their 20's or 30's, which I think may differ from some of the other on-line romance web sites.

I know our readership varies as well; I hear from readers as young as fourteen to those as mature as 75. I'm thrilled that readers of any age visit this site, but wondered why so many younger readers are drawn. So I asked one twenty-something reader for her thoughts on the topic. This is what Andrea had to say:

"I think what is probably the most appealing (about AAR) to our generation is that we not only like to be entertained, but we like to participate. Other review sites have a much more conservative and passive format where the reader takes the role of observer, while AAR is very interactive (while still being user friendly) and gives the internet surfer lots of brain/eye candy so the reader is more of a participant, or at least has the option to be. Another appealing quality of AAR is the amount of transition and new information added frequently. Along with qualifying time spent in measures of entertainment value, Generation X'ers also get bored fairly easily. It's much more interesting to explore a web site that has input from many different people and opinions than one run by a few people. Since Internet surfing is a fairly new craze and technologically intimidating to a lot of older people, an Internet site needs to be fun and innovative to capture and convert the reader into a loyalist. There is a lot of energy at your web site that seems to be coming from a pretty young group of people, but I bet you have a lot of silent older readers. It would be interesting to find out."

When it's time to post to the message board, let's consider the following:

  • Are you wistful for the older, more epic, more flowery style of romance?
  • Comparing older romances to newer ones, what are the changes apparent to you? Is it, as one of our reviewers has noted, that, in older historicals, "heroes raping heroines were part of the courting process?" Is it a crisper writing style? What do you miss most in more current romances when compared against the Woodiwiss classics?
  • Have you noticed a trend toward less emotion and more humor, either in your preference or what is available in the genre?
  • Are our reviewers "biased" against the older style of romance or should some of the authors who still write in that style need to change with the times?
  • Whether you are young or old, a long-time reader or a more newbie reader, do our reviews satisfy you?

Our own Ellen Micheletti sent in this segment. Enjoy!

"Despite what some of my friends might think, I have not read every book in the world, much less every romance novel, but I have read a lot and I've noticed something. Romance heroines are changing in their physical characteristics. They are now allowed to be normal looking while romance heroes still have bodies to die for.

"In earlier romances a la Kathleen Woodiwiss and Valerie Sherwood, most heroines were blindingly beautiful. They all had big blue or green or brown or black or hazel or gray eyes and long, thick shining black or brown or red or auburn or golden hair. They all had figures that were a paradoxical mix of being petite and yet lush, and, well they were all totally gorgeous babes. Now, heroines come in all sizes and all shapes. Some are tall, some are short, and many are of average height. A romance heroine can be ordinary looking and even plain. She can wear glasses, and have bad hair days. And increasingly, some heroines are not even svelte. There are even a few who are (gasp) plump.

"Virgina in Lori Foster's Taken! is a beautiful red-head who is tall and several pounds overweight. She is at first, a little self-conscious about it, but the hero, Dillon does not care at all and says her extra weight makes her look good.

"Blythe Redd in Terrific Tom by Martha Hix is a size 16 (O.K. 18) who dresses with style and panache and does not give a hoot that she is not some idealized size. Neither does Tom.

"In Ruth Wind's Reckless, Ramona is a little bit overweight and very self conscious about wearing a bathing suit. Jake, who has been been having encounters with thin, brittle women finds her warm, and loving and comforting to hold in his arms.

"You get the picture. Romance heroines don't have to have model figures anymore. But what about the hero? While the hero can come in various heights - it is rare to find one who is short. Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh have some short heroes, but they are the rare exceptions. Most heroes are tall - over six feet and with very few exceptions, they have gorgeous bodies. You will not find love handles or (heaven forbid) a potbelly on a romance hero.

"I've wracked my brain and have come up with the following very short list of heroes who do not have god-like bods.

"Steve Calhoun in Walking After Midnight by Karen Robards is described as having a muscular body with a suggestion of love handles puddling up around his waist. Steve is also not quite six feet tall and has acne scars and a sallow complexion.

"Tommy Lee Gentry in Lavyrle Spencer's The Hellion is a middle-aged man who is overweight and red-faced from drinking too much. He has a potbelly and slack skin, but after a dressing down from the heroine, he quits drinking and begins to eat a healthy diet and exercise. Pretty soon the potbelly is gone and he looks much better.

"Henry, Marquess of Grayson in Carla Kelly's Miss Billings Treads the Boards is the despair of his valet. He is balding and portly and does not look elegant in his clothing. At the end of the book, he is still balding and portly, but Miss Billings does not care in the least - she loves him dearly.

"There may be others, like I say I have not read everything, but a romance hero who is not blessed with a fantastic body is almost non-existent. He may have scars - Houston Leigh in Texas Destiny has disfiguring facial scars and has lost an eye, but he has a cowboy's body; rangy, slim, and muscular. Jess Dante in Once Upon a Wedding by Paula Detmer Riggs has lost his entire right arm, but is tall, muscular and broad shouldered. Dar Cordell in The Morning Side of Dawn by Justine Dare is a double amputee, but is a champion wheelchair racer, has a fit, muscular upper torso and is so handsome he is breathtaking. The Marquess of Carew in Mary Balogh's Lord Carew's Bride has a crippled arm and leg, but he is slim and muscular and as events show, a great kick boxer.

"So why the plethora of fantastic male bodies? I have a theory. These are our fantasies after all and most of us are not super-gorgeous babes with yards of hair and legs up to our necks. Some of us can identify more with a heroine who is not so impossibly perfect they we can't even believe she exists. The hero, well he's the heroine's reward and vicariously ours too and we do want the best, don't we?

"At least women are more forgiving of imperfections in our fantasy men. Look at any issue of Playboy or Penthouse. The centerfolds there are all airbrushed to flawless perfection and silicon enhanced to unreal proportions. At least in a romance novel, we do let the hero have some flaws. I dare say you will never find a centerfold with a scar - or even a blemish for that matter."

(Please check the end of this column for a special link to our Special Title Listings on less-than-beautiful characters.)

A Different Kind of Humor:
Humor in romance takes many forms, from drawing room humor to double entendres to "playing the dozens," to puns, to screwball comedy. Sometimes we laugh at something the author never intended for us to laugh at, which is not a good thing. In other instances, we don't laugh even though the author wants us to, because we don't get the joke, or because the humor is forced. Humor can be a very delicate thing, even though it can, at times, be very overt.

At times, humor is derived from a situation; at others it comes from the character. Humor can be of the highbrow "drawing room" variety or based on bodily functions. Whatever its basis, when it works, it can do wonders for the reader's spirit.

Toward the end of last year, I read Portrait of My Heart by Patricia Cabot. It was unique in that the humor was darker than I'd ever read; my term for this romance was that it was a sexy, black screwball comedy. The hero was an unrepentant rake. He did whatever he wanted in order to get whatever he wanted - damn the consequences. Sometimes, what he wanted was for the good. At other times, what he wanted was no good for anyone save himself. Either way, those things he did were out-and-out hilarious, but in a dark sort of way, and in a way that included the love scenes. This combination of black humor and sexuality is uncommon, and I wanted to find out more about it from the author.

First we began to talk about sexuality and the humor in it. Then we started to talk about that dark edge. Here's Patricia on sex and comedy:

"Let's face it: Sex is funny.

"We may not want it to be, but it is. It may not look funny when actors do it for the camera. It isn't usually funny in romance novels, either. And it probably isn't funny to people who've been caught in sex scandals, like some presidents and a certain sports announcer we might know.

"But in real life, any time you get two people naked, it's a mess: There's sweat and hair in weird places and red marks where elastic bands once were and strange noises and all sorts of other even more bizarre and completely random things.

"I mean, come on. It's funny.

"And yet all of us-well, pretty much all of us-like having sex. Some of us of like it a lot. Some of us like it so much that we like to write about it.

"Why? Because sex is - well, fun.

"The truth is, some of us who write about it can't help putting a little bit of the fun that exists in real life sex into our fictional sex scenes. Being one of those kind of writers, I am of the opinion that doing this - adding a dollop of humor to a spicy situation - heightens the realism of the scene, making it, to me, anyway - sexier.

"All of my favorite writers employ humor in their love scenes. In Johanna Lindsey's Defy Not The Heart, her hero seeks out sexual advice from the village prostitute, then proceeds to employ what he has learned on his baffled - but appreciative - wife, creating a highly erotic, and very amusing, scene. There's a hilarious - but sexy - chapter in Susan Isaacs' book Close Relations, in which her heroine is happily surprised to find that the somewhat staid-seeming hero possesses a previously undiscovered hidden talent - well, talent might be the wrong word for it, but you get my drift.

"The reason these writers are among my favorites is that the love scenes they've written have stayed in my memory longer than more traditional ones-and that's because of the element of humor in them. To me, this sense of fun makes these love scenes believable - which makes them stand out from the rest. I'm sure all of you have read love scenes that seemed unbelievable or hokey, because the characters behaved in unrealistic - even stupid - ways. How much better would the scene have been if the author had inserted just a kernel or two of humor?"

More on Humor:
Have you ever seen War of the Roses? It was sickeningly funny - how is that even possible?!? Portrait of My Heart was not sickeningly funny, but it definitely had an edge to it. Recently I had an online discussion with a reader about A Well Pleasured Lady. We both loved the book because it had a similarly nasty sense of humor. One scene in Dodd's book has an entire family of ne'er-do-wells vying to seduce two "innocent" people in order to get what they wanted. It was mean-spirited, but it was fun.

With these questions in mind, I wrote to Patricia and asked, "Can we talk about the kind of humor where a man drugs a maid with opium so he can be with his lover; the kind of humor where a man decides to seduce a woman as 'pay back' for her decking him when they were kids? The humor in your book had a sexy edge to it, which is not altogether unusual, but it had a "nasty" edge to it as well, which is fairly unique. There was a delicious sense of amorality that worked so well - this was an unrepentant rake that I loved and never wanted him to reform. Where did that come from?"

This is what Patricia sent me in response:

Go Ahead, Laugh - You Know You Want To
Black Comedy in the Romance Novel

My mother made me do it.

Really. I was the only girl in my class whose mother routinely yanked her out of school whenever the afternoon movie on Channel 4 happened to star Julie Andrews. This was in the days before VCRs (or at least, before anyone in southern Indiana, where I grew up, owned one), and my mother considered Julie Andrews a vital aspect of my education. That is probably why, to this day, I know all the lyrics to The Sound Of Music, but have yet to grasp the concept of long division.

My father, on the other hand, always felt that The Sound of Music was badly lacking in one thing: explosions. His contribution to my education included taking his ten-year-old daughter (me) to see The Enforcer, starring his favorite actor, Clint Eastwood, as well as Coma, a movie I remember longing to see every bit as much as I longed to see The Slipper and the Rose.

With two such strong personalities pulling me in two such widely divergent directions, what could I do but become a writer? And a writer of historical romance that contains hefty doses of black comedy.

What's black comedy, you ask? Imagine a Dirty Harry movie starring Julie Andrews, and you'll sort of get the drift.

What makes comedy black is when the humor is drawn from dark subjects, such as murder (Jeremy, the hero in my most recent book, Portrait of my Heart, confesses to killing a man on the first page) or suffering (later in the book, in order to insure a night of uninterrupted passion with Maggie, the woman of his dreams, Jeremy drugs her maid). But because of their particular relationship to a larger social context, these dark subjects become humorous.

Murder, funny? Well, it can be. Black comedy is essentially the ironic counterpoise between events, characters, and situations that are normally considered tragic, but because of their extreme nature, instead of invoking dismay, invoke laughter. Who didn't chuckle when the heroine in Julia Quinn's To Catch an Heiress was convinced she'd shot and killed a man, all in the very first chapter? What was funny was not that Caroline had killed a man, but her thoughts about having done so, which were, if Ms. Quinn will excuse my paraphrasing, "Well, darn! But he had it coming."

The trick to this form of humor is that we've been made to like the characters who are performing these seemingly horrific acts. Yes, the things they're doing are reprehensible, but the characters themselves are so likable-and the situation so extreme - that you can't really hold it against them. While truly black comedy has only very recently made its way into romantic fiction, it has long been the backbone of many successful television series, most notably M*A*S*H and Soap. And black comedy is currently experiencing a marked resurgence in Hollywood. Movies like Heathers and Fargo are taking up where Hitchcock's "The Trouble With Harry and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove left off, poking fun at such serious issues as teen suicide, murder, and eliminating evidence of that murder through the use of a wood chipper.

And while I would never suggest that any of these subjects will ever receive comic treatment by one of your favorite romance writers - don't be surprised if one of these days, they do.

And don't surprised if they make you laugh!

(Oh, and by the way: Thanks, Mom and Dad!

It's a Wrap!
Thanks for reading this issue of Laurie's News & Views. Please do not forget that I need each of you to vote in our 1998 All About Romance Reader Awards. I plan on announcing the winners in mid-February.

The Message Board:
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:

Old versus New -

  • Are you wistful for the older, more epic, more flowery style of romance?
  • Comparing older romances to newer ones, what are the changes apparent to you? >Is it, as one of our reviewers has noted, that, in older historicals, "heroes raping heroines were part of the courting process?" Is it a crisper writing style? What do you miss most in more current romances when compared against the Woodiwiss classics?
  • Have you noticed a trend toward less emotion and more humor, either in your preference or what is available in the genre?
  • Are our reviewers "biased" against the older style of romance or should some of the authors who still write in that style need to change with the times?
  • Whether you are young or old, a long-time reader or a more newbie reader, do our reviews satisfy you?
  • Any comments on reader Andrea's musings?

From the Desk of Ellen Micheletti - On heroes and heroines. Do you agree that we better tolerate less-than-beautiful heroines than heroes? Part of romance is fantasy. Is your fantasy fulfilled with beautiful characters and the occasionally average heroine thrown into the mix, or do you prefer your romances filled with real people? BTW, one of the lists we maintain here is of Less Than Beautiful Lead Characters. Please feel free not only to check out this particular Special Title Listing, but to submit your own favorites to Lists Editor Anne Ritter.

A Different Kind of Humor - What did you think of Patricia Cabot's comments on sex, humor, and the dark side of humor? I'd be most interested in hearing from those who have read her just-released Portrait of My Heart or Christina Dodd's A Well Pleasured Lady. Does this type of humor appeal to you? Do you prefer situational humor or character-based humor? Highbrow or lowbrow?

Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
In conjunction with Patricia Cabot and Ellen Micheletti

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