Issue #69 (March 15, 1999)

My nose has been an entirely useless organ since last Friday when I came down with some dreaded disease. After two sinus operations, mine still don't work and I haven't been able to breathe through my nose for several days now. If this column doesn't make sense, let's blame it on a lack of oxygen, okay? Luckily, I had already prepared one segment before succumbing to fever. Also luckily was that our own Ellen Micheletti, reviewer, reviews editor, and historical cheat sheet editor, prepared a guest segment. And, just because I couldn't breath and felt "fluffy" in the head doesn't mean I couldn't read in recent days. In fact, I read three books and plan to talk about them here as a way to kick off discussion.

So, let's begin.

The Triple Lutz, Triple Toe Loop Combination:
A couple of months ago, our daughter learned how to ice skate. While generally more graceful in the water than on land, she managed to skate on that thin blade atop a rink of ice after two go-rounds holding onto the side. Of course, anyone who's ever been to a rink knows that, day or night, there are enthusiasts practicing the art of figure skating. Rachael remains convinced that the 30-year-old man we saw two days in a row is going to be in the next Winter Games - who am I to dash her illusions?

A couple of weeks ago, our family watched the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on television. We were lucky enough to see the long programs. You know the ones - where the skaters show their athleticism for four or so minutes and prove their artistry by changing music styles two or three times? Why that started me thinking about romance, I'll never know, but when Rachael asked why the music was first fast, then slow, then fast again, it did.

We gave her the Dick Buttons explanation, mentioned that artistry is considered as important as jumping in ice skating, and explained that without those slower moments, the skaters wouldn't be able to make all those jumps. Then we talked about the legendary Torvill and Dean, ice dancers who broke all the rules in their sport by choosing to not change the music in their long program. They chose one theme and created a ballet on ice for their four minutes, and it worked wonderfully. Of course, when the American couple tried to do the same thing, the judges didn't go for it, but suddenly something clicked in my head having to do with romance and balance and tone.

Last week I posted my reviews of Julia Quinn's How to Marry a Marquis and Lynsay Sands' The Key. In each of these romances, balance of tone was a key point for me. While each book had its deeper moments and undertones, they were humorous reads. While each book was layered so that they weren't frothy confections, their authors were careful and subtle in writing those darker moments. Nothing was jarring, nothing seemed intense for no other purpose than to show that the author could "write deep;" the books were in balance.

Contrast those two books to Bewitching by Jill Barnett and Basket of Wishes by Rebecca Paisley. Both these fantasy romances alternated laughter and tears. While each book had its deeper moments and undertones, they were humorous, fantastical reads. But whereas Quinn and Sands' books were subtle in their darker moments, Barnett and Paisley's books were not. In both those books, I can recall laughing one moment, then crying in the next.

All four of these books worked very well for me (with the exception of the Sands' book, they are Desert Isle Keepers for me) because of the balance of tone. Two wove in darker elements and were able to maintain their humor throughout. Two juxtaposed very dark elements starkly against very light ones throughout. For very different reasons, then, balance of tone was maintained in all four books.

There have been other books, however, where balance of tone was not so well maintained. Books, for instance, that were so frothy they made my teeth hurt, and those so dark they sucked away my energy like being pulled into a black hole. Still other books fail to maintain their balance of romantic and suspense or mystery or history elements. They either end up reading like lectures at the War College on medieval battle strategy or like two books in one - the first half being a romance and the second half reading like a suspense or mystery novel. In none of these cases is balance maintained.

What about the romance where the hero and heroine have some inexplicable urge to jump each other's bones after a near-death experience? While making love after the death of a loved one can reaffirm life, nearly being shot wouldn't seem to warrant a sexual escapade, and yet, I recently read a romance wherein that very thing happened. This is not balance in tone; it is atonal. What about the urge to have oral sex after touring a prison ship filled with the stench of misery and feces? This is not balance in tone; it is atonal, at least for me.

Let's talk about balance and tone and the lack thereof. Which books maintained a lightness of tone without being too frothy or added in darker elements with enough subtleness to make the book a rich one without messing up the lightness? Which books contrasted heavy darkness with a great lightness and enriched both aspects? Which dark books added enough leavening so that they weren't too depressing to read? Which books read fine as romances until another element overrode the love story? Which books juxtaposed scenes that didn't enrich the tonality? Which books didn't achieve balance in tone? Keep these questions in mind when it's time to post to the message board.

Our own Ellen Micheletti sent in this segment. She realizes she may be unpopular after you read it, but give it a chance.

Why I Don't Get Jennifer Crusie Or Authors Others Love that You Don't:
There are always authors that some readers love, while others just don't get them. I read just about every type of romance fiction there is and yes, there are several authors whom I just don't get. There are some, (who shall remain anonymous) whom I think are just plain poor writers. There are others who are good writers, but either their style or their characters just don't appeal to me.

However, there is one author who writes books of a type I enjoy (romantic comedies), and who has a wonderful writing style and funny and endearing characters.

But I just don't "get" Jennifer Crusie.

When I first joined the wonderful Internet community of readers, I was inundated with suggestions for titles from authors I had not heard of before. One who received almost unanimous praise was Jennifer Crusie. Naturally, I was intrigued and haunted the used book store until I got several of her category titles. I read them and was left feeling, "Well that was pleasant, but not the greatest thing since sliced bread".

Don't get me wrong, I did not dislike the books. Like I said, Jennifer Crusie is a marvelous storyteller and has a wonderful sense of humor. When her latest book, Crazy For You got total raves from all the reviews I read, I went out and got it, read it and was left feeling underwhelmed. So I sat down and thought, "Why is it that this talented writer whom everyone loves just does not click with me"?

I think it all boils down to two things - my atypical sense of humor and my love of books where the hero and heroine are best friends and soulmates as well as lovers.

Several male friends have told me that I have a sense of humor that is more like a man's than a woman's. Now, I like to think that I have both male and female senses of humor, but after some informal surveying, I have come to the conclusion that women like me who like what I call, for lack of a better term "guy humor", are quite rare, about as rare a man who will actually admit to liking "chick flicks."

What do I find funny? Well, for one thing I like slapstick. It is a given among people who analyze humor that women generally don't like slapstick, but I do and having read some interviews with Crusie, I know she doesn't. I laugh out loud at Pink Panther movies and I am crazy about the Three Stooges. All it takes is one look at John Cleese doing The Minister of Silly Walks sketch and I am in helpless tears. While I do enjoy verbal humor (George Carlin is a genius) given the choice between a Paula Poundstone stand-up routine and Steve Martin in the throes of happy feet, it's Steve all the way.

Jennifer Crusie's humor is very female oriented, and given my "un-chicklike" sense of humor, I find the antics of the Quinn brothers in Nora Roberts' Cheasapeake Bay trilogy funnier. I have four brothers and I just can sit and listen to them talk, and argue and fight while I just laugh - (not where they can hear me, they may not think they are funny but they are). I also have four sisters whom I love dearly, but my brothers are funnier. One of my sisters is the kind of woman who takes several minutes to get the punch line of a joke - but then she is a blonde. (I still love you anyway, Susan.)

It may be unfair of me to get all down and deep in analyzing what are, after all, comedies. But when I read a romance, I look for that deep sense of intimacy between the hero and heroine that makes them best friends, soul-mates and companions. I just don't find a lot of male/female intimacy in Crusie's books.

Two of my favorite romances are my favorites because of the intense intimacy between the hero and heroine. One is Mary Jo Putney's The Rake and the other is Ruth Wind's Reckless. In these books, both the hero and heroine share incidents and emotions that leave them vulnerable to each other and more naked than any physical nudity can be. I've closed both books knowing that if Reggie ever had any trouble in his life he would go to Alys first and if Ramona had a burden, she would share it with Jake before anyone else.

Jennifer Crusie's female characters, while bright and funny and likeable, all seem to reserve their deepest emotional sharing for their women friends. Nothing wrong with that, but I miss the close bond between the hero and heroine. Yeah, I know Crusie writes comedy and maybe I am looking for something where it was not meant to be found, but I find a feeling of closeness between the hero and heroine in other writers of romantic comedy (Susan Andersen and Elizabeth Bevarly in particular) that I just don't find in Crusie.

Now, as for Katie the dog in Crazy For You - sorry, I just didn't like her. Before you all call out the ASPCA, I like dogs - I really do. I had a dog while I was growing up who was perfect and I wish I could clone her right now. My aversion to Katie boils down to this. All eight of my brothers and sisters were younger than me. I have two children of my own and 12 nieces and nephews. Katie is one of those scaredy dogs who pee if anyone touches her. I've wiped up enough pee to last me several lifetimes, thank you.

So, do I not get Jennifer Crusie because what I want is an intense romance that is also full of "guy humor?" Sort of a cross between Nora Roberts and Mary Jo Putney with a dash of the Stooges thrown in? Or is my problem (as my daughter is fond of telling me), "Mom, you just think too much!"

I'll reserve my comments for the message board and hope you'll share your feelings on this with Ellen, whether you agree or disagree, in a thoughtful and calm manner. And, if there are authors others love that you don't, we'd like to hear about them as well.

Laurie's Feverish Ruminations About Books Read While In Her Sick Bed:

Society Bride by Elizabeth Bevarly, 1999 (Silhouette Desire #1196):
This is the second in Silhouette Desire's Fortune's Children series. I enjoy Elizabeth Bevarly and though I don't plan on reading this six-book series, I wanted to read her contribution. Society Bride is the love story of Renee Riley, who has been asked to marry a millionaire who will otherwise take over her father's company. This marriage of convenience is not one Renee looks forward to, especially not after a hot New Year's Eve kiss she shares with cowboy Garrett Fortune.

Garrett believes all women are fortune hunters after his first wife tried to pick him clean. He's tried to forget the kisses he shared with Renee, but she's in his blood. When his grandmother decides to play matchmaker between he and Renee by sending her to "think about her future" for a few days at a remote family compound in Wyoming, guess who lives there?

Of course, they kiss, pet, and fight time and again, each time going farther sexually. Of course, he thinks she's getting married because she's a gold digger. Of course, she doesn't tell him she's doing it for her dad. Of course she's a virgin. Of course they end up doing it. Of course they love each other but won't share their feelings. Of course their mixed signals nearly lead her to the altar with the other man.

Of courses aside, Bevarly nearly pulls it off - at one point having me in tears - because she's such a good teller of tales. But the of courses eventually win out; it's tough to have a marriage of convenience fly in 1999, and "all women are evil" because of one bad experience wears thin. This one earned a grade of C+ from me.

Let's talk about modern marriages of convenience, the man who distrusts every woman based on a bad experience, and the "cabin" romance, a kissing cousin to the road romance when it's time to post to my message board.

Show Me the Way by Jill Shalvis, 1997 (Loveswept #869):
In the middle of 1998, I wandered into a Borders that had a terrific selection of series romances and picked up several. Some were better than others, and this one is one of the others.

The son of a senator is threatening Assistant District Attorney Katherine Wilson because she had him convicted of drug dealing. When an appeals court overturns the conviction, he is free and she is threatened. Her boss decides to send her on a hiking/rafting/biking excursion in the wild with one Kyle Spencer. Unbeknownst to her, Kyle leads these expeditions for only two months a year; the rest of the time he runs his family's hugely successful sporting goods business. He thinks she's beautiful, ambitious, and cold as ice. She thinks he's more brawn than brains. He thinks she lacks respect for him, his work, and the great outdoors. She's actually scared to death of being killed but refuses to explain why she's so skittish.

As their journey continues, each gains a grudging respect for the other while fighting a growing lust. They share some heated kisses that scare her nearly as much as the man stalking her. Eventually, in a nice turnabout, Katy wants to get physical but Kyle doesn't want to be an outlet for her lust - he loses. In another nice turnabout, she tries to push him away in order to protect him from the stalker. By the end, the stalker has been revealed, Kyle comes clean about his "real" job, and they live happily ever after.

I knew the true identity of the stalker early on. Because this book has been out so long and the publisher cancelled the imprint, I don't think I'm spoiling anything to reveal he was her boss, the DA. Seems he was jealous over her good press and decided to do away with her to achieve his political aspirations. Quite a stretch - in fact, far too much of a stretch to be believable. Between that and the artificial feel to the internal conflict, this one earned a C- from me.

Let's talk about the road romance - we haven't done that in awhile - as well as over-the-top villains when it's time to post to the message board. Those are the villains who are evil in the ridiculous, are so clever in their villainy that they must have an IQ of 200, and/or those villains whose motivations seem unbelievable.

Mackenzie's Mountain by Linda Howard, 1989 (reprinted by MIRA with Mackenzie's Mission in 1996):
When prim and proper, mild and mousy Mary Elizabeth Potter moves to the small Wyoming town of Ruth, she never imagined she'd blossom like a hot house flower. In order to encourage A-student dropout Joe Mackenzie to go back to school, she decides to pay him a visit. When her car breaks down mid-way up the mountain road leading to the Mackenzie ranch, Joe's father Wolf saves her from the elements and takes her back to the ranch.

Author Howard makes this one sizzle from the start. In order to prevent frostbite, Wolf practically strips Mary naked so he can warm her back up. Mary is unused to the physical side of life and believes she is invisible to the male of the species. Wolf, however, has a powerful reaction to this mousy do-gooder and warns her off. He'll let Mary talk to Joe, work with Joe, even tutor Joe to help him gain entrance into the Air Force Academy, but she should stay away from him or else the small town's prejudice and hatred of he and his son will rub off on her.

Long ago Wolf was falsely accused and convicted of rape. While proven innocent, the town neither trusts nor likes the half-breed or his son, which is why Joe dropped out of school. Mary refuses to accept the town's attitude; her defense of Wolf and Joe do cause problems for her with the school board and with a new rapist. How the rapist is caught, and how Wolf and Mary find their happily ever after in a town filled with distrust and hate makes this story far more than the basic series romance.

In fact, Mackenzie's Mountain has the feel of a full-length read. Mary's transformation into a vibrant sexual woman was one of the best I've ever read, and Wolf's he-man attitude suited the story. The character of Joe, however, whose own romance is told in Mackenzie's Mission, is too good to be true. Romance is fantasy, yet Joe at age sixteen seems more like a perfect 30-year-old male. Finally, I knew whom the rapist was far earlier than the author intended. This one earned a grade of B from me.

Let's talk about series romances that seem like full-length reads when it's time to post to the message board. Let's also talk about why you love (or don't love) Linda Howard, and which of her books especially resonated (or did not) for you. And, what other characters have you read who are like Joe - simply too good to be true?

The Message Board:
It's time to post to the message board again. Please consider the following and comment about any and all the topics discussed in this issue of my column:

The Triple Lutz, Triple Toe Loop Combination: Let's talk about balance and tone and the lack thereof. Which books maintained a lightness of tone without being too frothy or added in darker elements with enough subtleness to make the book a rich one without messing up the lightness? Which books contrasted heavy darkness with a great lightness and enriched both aspects? Which dark books added enough leavening so that they weren't too depressing to read? Which books read fine as romances until another element overrode the love story? Which books juxtaposed scenes that didn't enrich the tonality? Which books didn't achieve balance in tone?

Why I Don't Get Jennifer Crusie Or Authors Others Love that You Don't: Should Ellen be boiled in oil for her segment on Jennifer Crusie? Is she wrong about Jennifer's male/female relationships? Do the strong friendships she creates for the women in her books overpower the love relationships? So you prefer Crusie's series romances to her full-length romances? What authors do others love that you don't?

Let's talk about modern marriages of convenience, the man who distrusts every woman based on a bad experience, and the "cabin" romance, a kissing cousin to the road romance.

Let's talk about the road romance - we haven't done that in awhile - as well as over-the-top villains. Those are the villains who are evil in the ridiculous, are so clever in their villainy that they must have an IQ of 200, and/or those villains whose motivations seem unbelievable.

Let's talk about series romances that seem like full-length reads. Let's also talk about why you love (or don't love) Linda Howard, and which of her books especially resonated (or did not) for you. And, what other characters have you read who are like Joe - simply too good to be true?

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

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