Issue #73 (May 15, 1999)

I like to think of AAR and this column as being organic. In other words, the topics discussed here are often those that bubble up from readers via email and/or our two message boards. So I'd like to start off this column with a discussion culled from our Reviews Message Board.

The Big Whine/The Big Blame:
A few weeks ago, Ava posted that she had become a "wallbanging woman." After reading two books recently that were raved about by our reviewers, it occurred to her that that although they were "wonderful stories, I have liked them, enjoyed reading them," she "wanted to bang them against the wall anyway. Why? Because they weren't love stories to me. . . not romance. Yes, there was romance in them, yes, there was a couple of people falling in love in them, but I felt like I was reading about How to overcome your past bad experiences 101."

Ava added that she's read at least a dozen books recently, all dealing with this same underlying theme. She wrote, "It seems that in order to add value to a relationship, it must first have roots in angst. What's wrong with two perfectly normal people with no emotional baggage attached meeting and falling in love? Yeah, yeah, I know, everyone has a certain amount of emotional baggage attached no matter how perfect your childhood, but why oh why does it have to dominate the story?"

This week, the following message appeared on this board:

"Is it just me, or do most contemporary heroes seem soured on women? As I've read the reviews this week I've seen more than one man described as not trusting women after a disastrous relationship. Let's be honest; haven't all of us been hurt in a relationship before? We cry and eventually pick up the pieces of our hearts and move on. These I-got-burned-by-my-ex-wife-and-now-I-trust-no-woman men sound more petulant than scarred to me. Sometimes I just want to grab them and shout get over it! I do like internal conflict, but can't authors come up with other sources of conflict than this? It almost seems like there's an unwritten rule that characters can't have good relationships before they meet the hero/heroine. God forbid we meet a hero that (gasp!) likes women and wasn't burned before!" -- Alison

Nicole wrote that while she isn't averse to emotional baggage, she doesn't enjoy reading romances wherein the hero and/or heroine spend the entire book stumbling over it. We've referred to this syndrome before, in discussions of the Get-Over-It! Hero. This is the hero who was once burned by a woman and now refuses to trust any woman. It seems as though series romances are replete with this type of hero. Obviously there needs to be conflict of some sort in every story, even a romp, but it's the carrying through of the same premise over and over again in a book that sours our stomachs.

Discussion of this type of hero reminds me of something I've been bandying about in my mind - the blaming character and his cousin, the whining character. One of the reasons I have always enjoyed the books of Merline Lovelace, is because her characters do not whine or blame, even when they themselves could easily get off the hook for something they have been accused of doing or being. They are adult and accept responsibility for themselves, even when doing so makes them look bad to others. They are honorable people satisfied with knowing they acted honorably, even if others don't realize it. In our "everyone's a victim" society, where no one is to blame for anything, I find that refreshing. As someone who lives with a seven-year-old, I have a very low tolerance for this kind of behavior, and when I read it in a romance, I am immediately turned off.

Robin Nixon Uncapher is a reviewer here at AAR, but months before she was, she was merely an opinionated member of the AAR Listserv. When I asked back in February for list members to talk about whining, she responded that the maturation process of the hero and/or heroine is an important feature of many romances. She wrote:

"When a central character starts out whining at the beginning of a novel (for example Lord Ragsdale in Carla Kelly's Reforming Lord Ragsdale or Reggie in Mary Jo Putney's The Rake), I don't mind. Remember Goldie Hawn whining in Private Benjamin "I want to go to lunch!" or Claudette Cobert complaining about life on the road in It Happened One Night? It's a time-honored device. We have to see the character at his or her worst to appreciate how far they have come by the end of the book.

"Sometimes whining is not reformed but it is balanced by a good quality in the character's make-up. The critical thing is that the reader knows that the writer is describing a character flaw. Scarlett O'Hara worried about being a bored widow when her first husband, Charles, died in the war. The fact that he was dead hardly mattered to her. Did that make GWTW a bad book about an obnoxious whiner? No because we knew Margaret Mitchell was making a point about the character. Later, when Scarlett shows her courage, we are amazed that such a seemingly weak person could act so bravely under pressure.

"Now, sometimes we find a central character who whines and the character flaw is never really addressed. Instead it is explained away with a bad childhood or a bad personal experience. That is the way I felt about the hero in Pat Coughlin's Merely Married. He whines about the old ladies of the ton trying to fix him up and then marries a woman who is dying and unconscious with the idea of becoming a widower. I never felt that the whining or self pity were addressed by the character so I still didn't like him even when he fell in love.

"The hero in Joan Johnson's After the Kiss worries far too much about his looks, puts lots of people through hell and, to my mind, never really addresses the fact that his actions were wrong. His whining over his lost looks really annoyed me and I wasn't impressed with his too quick reform.

"Strangely enough, I think it is the alpha heroes who are the most likely to whine (at least to themselves). I got a kick out of Johanna Lindsey's Prisoner of My Desire but I felt the hero was full of pride and self pity. Ironically as much as the hero whined about the heroine "stealing my seed," I thought Lindsey missed a huge opportunity with the book in not exploring the humiliation that a man who had been raped would feel. It could have been fascinating seeing a man endure the kind of pain a female rape victim might feel. If Lindsey had explored this I would not have seen it as whining and would have had far more sympathy for the hero.

"Whose characters don't whine? Well, MJP's heroes are really tortured and they do not whine unless, like Reggie in The Rake, they are about to be reformed. Carla Kelly is the same. Her heroes are incredible. Major Reed in Kelly's With This Ring feels guilty because he is afraid to undergo an operation without anesthesia! Does he whine? No way. He goes through the operation until he passes out. The heroine in the same book is left with no way to pay the innkeeper's bill so she becomes a barber. No whining there either. Caroline, in Adele Ashworth's My Darling Caroline had good reason to whine (about her lost dream of becoming a botanist) and didn't. Tessa in Karen Ranney's Upon a Wicked Time doesn't whine even when she is stuck with probably the cruelest hero I've ever read. Raleigh in Deborah Simmon's The Last Rogue doesn't whine (about being forced into a marriage) even though he supposed to be a spoiled rogue (and we love him for it). Charles in Danelle Harmon's The Beloved One barely complains even when he is blinded in battle. He does go through a sort of nervous breakdown later but I really couldn't blame him and he blamed himself for everything.

Who whines? In addition to those I've mentioned, the heroine in Sandra Hill's Sweeter Savage Love whined so much and so long I could not finish the book. (I also hated the chauvinist hero and the lecturing.) Rejar's ladylove Lilac whined way too much about the silliest things. I loved the book but she drove me nuts. "

One of the reasons I added the Most Annoying Lead Character category to the All-Time Readers Favorites page (and will add it to the 1999 AAR Reader Awards was because of the whiners and blame-seekers I've read once too often. While one of my favorite types of romance features the heroine everyone comes to know, love, and trust except the hero, it takes a skilled author to pull off this premise.

I agree with Robin about "alpha" heroes and their propensity to whine to themselves and to outwardly blame others. In my mind, a tortured hero is one who tortures others. For others, including author Danelle Harmon, who is working on a piece for us on this very point, a tortured hero is merely a hero who has been tortured by life. I think we can all agree that many a romance hero has been tortured by life. However, it is how he handles this torture that either works or doesn't. Does he hate all women because of a single betrayal or is he able to get over it? Does he forever condemn the idea of love because his parents loved each other but excluded him? I don't mind some whining and blaming, as long as the hero is able to work through his problems before they overtake the entire book. Just as there is The Big Misunderstanding which readers have come to abhor, for me there is The Big Whine/Blame that is becoming increasingly difficult for me to accept.

Anne Marble, another AAR Reviewer, said, and I agree with her wholeheartedly, that "the tricky part is finding a balance between the original whining and the growth of the character. Not too much whining, or the readers gives up." As for the hero who whines and the character flaw is never addressed, Anne said, "These are the Annoying Whiners. They can easily ruin a whole book." Exactly.

We've focused so far on heroes who whine and blame, but heroines do this too, and I find whiny heroines unforgivable. The heroine from Jean Ross Ewing's Illusion wins my hands-down vote as the most annoying lead character ever in a romance novel. Why? Because of her incessant whining. And, when she gets together with a major secondary character, it's a veritable pity party. The hero of this book, who endured so very much and blamed himself (and allowed others to blame him) for things out of his control, deserved a far better heroine than the one he fell in love with.

Baggage & the HEA Ending:
One of the problems associated with a hero or heroine who can't seem to get over the past is that it becomes difficult to believe they could ever be part of a happy and long-lasting relationship. I recently read Ruth Wind's Reckless, which features a hero who is most definitely not a whiner or a blamer. He more fits the Merline Lovelace mold of an honorable hero than anything, but his past bogs him down and nearly destroys him. As a warrior in the Iraqi conflict, he doesn't deem his experiences "bad enough" to get help like other wounded warriors from conflicts like those in Vietnam or WWII. And so, he very nearly destroys himself before the love of a woman makes him realize his past is a part of him that he must accept before he can go on with his life.

Reckless was a powerful read, and yet, the hero's realization of what he has to do to get on with life is wrapped up in too few pages. His baggage was too heavy for me to accept he and the heroine would be able to have a happy ending, although I might have believed it had more than a few pages been devoted to it. While this hero shares little in common with the hero who blames everyone but himself, he does beg the question - will he and his heroine have a happily-ever-after ending?

There are many books featuring heroes with heavy baggage, many heroes who blame the heroine for the mistakes of another woman, and Elizabeth Lowell and Linda Howard are two authors who specialize in writing books peopled by such heroes. Which brings us to. . . .

Romances You Hate to Love & Romances You Love to Hate:

We're going to kick off a new dual feature today - Romances you hate to love and romances you love to hate. The latter are books that were so awful when you read them that they've gotten stuck in your mind, like a bad meal that keeps repeating or a nightmare that won't go away. The former are books that you loved, but are very nearly loath to admit to. They are guilty pleasures.

Romances You Hate to Love:
AAR Reviewers/Editors Marianne Stillings and Ellen Micheletti tell me that Linda Howard and Elizabeth Lowell are two authors they sometimes hate to love, and many of their reasons work for me. They sometimes write heroes who verge on cruelty or are cruel. They both write powerful love scenes, although Lowell's are often intensely purple and go on and on and on. In some instances, I can believe they've been able to get over their pasts, but in other instances, they've stewed in their own misery for so long that I cannot buy into the happy endings written for them.

As Ellen said, "I am with Marianne on the Elizabeth Lowell books being guilty pleasures and books I hate to love. Her recent hard cover ones were very disappointing to me because the love scenes in them were quickies. No matter how arrogant the hero, no matter how horrible he acts, no matter what kind of dumb name he pins on the heroine (fairy-tale girl!?), when the love scene starts - the whole world stops. I have seldom seen an author able to S-T-R-E-T-C-H out love scenes and sexual tension. Pages and pages of prose that does get a little purple, but is so good!"

Other AAR contributors shared their favorite guilty pleasures as well. For Anne Marble, Marion Chesney's The Poor Relation is a guilty pleasure. For Anne Ritter, some of Diane Palmer's books fit the bill, while Anne Marble finds a certain Palmer book a book she loves to hate. For Blythe Barnhill, Whitney, My Love is a book she hates to love (because of the hero's brutal behavior toward the heroine in the rape scenes), while Nora Armstrong puts the same book on her list of books she loves to hate for the very same reason. Robin Nixon Uncapher and Laurie Shallah share mirrored views (in reverse) of Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook - Laurie hated to love it and Robin loved to hate it.

A couple of AAR's Reviewers said that the books of Julie Garwood are often books they hated to love. For them, her heroes and heroines seem too similar. And, when added with the historical fox paws they discover, her books are guilty pleasures for them. Rebecca Ekmark had this to say about Garwood's books:

"My guilty pleasures would have to come in the form of Julie Garwood. Absolutely love them - most are on my to be read again (and again) pile. They also have heroines that are very, shall we say, air headed. The Gift, which is an all time favorite of mine, has a heroine who cries though the whole book. Not my idea of how a strong leading lady should behave - and yet I really liked her. Garwood heroines get can get themselves not only undressed, but also married without knowing it. The heroes all have that 'let me take care of the helpless little woman' attitude from beginning to end. Yet I glommed them and have read them many times over, loving both the heroes and the heroines."

Garwood is not a guilty pleasure for me - I'm right out in the open with admiration for her well written, entertaining, sexy, and fast-paced romances. I do, however, sometimes feel embarrassed for having loved some of Catherine Coulter's romances, including Midsummer Magic. Yes - I admit it - I adore this book. And, yes - I admit it - this romance features the "love cream" Coulter has used, notoriously, in at least two of her romances, and has a scene as well that is meant to arouse readers. The hero takes the heroine to watch a stud horse mounting a mare in an effort to stimulate her (and the reader too, I'm guessing). I found this scene as laughable as scenes in other romances where readers are actually supposed to believe a man and woman can make love while perched on a moving horse. Which brings us to. . .

Too Hot to Handle by Elizabeth Lowell. This is the one and only series romance I've ever deemed a Desert Isle Keeper. Since I bought it as a single title re-issue, I tell myself it really wasn't a series romance, was it? This book is basically one long and purple love scene interspersed with brutish behavior by the hero to the heroine. Reading it, I went into a sort of trance, which didn't let up until I'd finished the book. I looked down to realize I'd used several Kleenex, then realized I need a very cold shower. My response to this book was purely emotional and physical, and it's very definitely a book I hated to love. And, btw, the hero and heroine get a start on the lengthiest love scene while perched on a moving horse.

And then there is Angels on Zebras by Peggy Webb. When I first read Angels of Zebras, it felt like a guilty pleasure. I was more than a bit embarrassed to recommend it, but graded it a B- anyway. It was a fun read but it was way over the top. After I read its prequel, Bringing Up Baxter, I was even more embarrassed because, taken together, the two books have more in common with Patty Salier's (more on her later) writing than I'd like to admit. The writing is better, the love scenes are better, but they all share an outlandish quality that makes me blush. There's a scene in Angels on Zebras where the heroine storms into the hero's office and throws her panties in his face. I understand that in Patty Salier's follow-up to The Sex Test (which I discuss below), the heroine goes panty-less because she "forgot" to wear them. There's a scene in Bringing Up Baxter where the heroine is holding a puppy and the hero pretends to pet the puppy so he can feel up the heroine. This extreme lack of subtlety reminded me of Patty Salier's writing. I stand by my minor recommendation of Angels on Zebras, but after having read even more of Peggy Webb's Loveswept's after a couple of UBS binges, it stands out as more of a guilty pleasure than ever.

Romance You Love to Hate:
The Sex Test by Patty Salier was the very first series romance I ever read, and I refused to pick up another for more than a year after reading it! From the ridiculous descriptions to the absurd coincidences, this book had me laughing from beginning to end. I kept a tally of absurdities but stopped at page 70 - what was the point in continuing? Every item was described in nauseating detail. Did I really need to know that the apple was "fire-engine red" or that each glass and bowl was crystal or that every carpet was plush every time? Just a few laughable things included: a college professor wearing spaghetti straps to work; nipples referred to as knobs; throbbing breasts; a "soaring IQ'd man"; and a "muscular body that...put her breath on major hold". "Major hold" - was this junior high or what?

There was also lots and lots of sex in this book, most of it out-and-out silly. Here are a few of the silliest descriptions: "naked globes," "chestnut patch of pleasure," "pulsating breasts," - well, you get the point. If reading a love scene makes me grab a pen, it's just not working.

Dream Lover by Virginia Henley is another romance I love to hate. Some of you may remember my review of this book for The Romance Reader. It began, "This book is vile. That, in a nutshell, is my review. For those whom those four words are not sufficient, I'll expand my comments. Dream Lover is a nightmare, not a dream."

What did this book do to cause such a diatribe, you say? While I know the British treated the Irish horribly, the author went overboard in making sure that we knew that. In essence, the lesson to be learned was, "Everything English, very, very bad. Everything Irish, very, very good." Then, of course, there was the sex. There was skanky sex on page seven between the heroine's mother and the hero's brother, and supposedly titillating sex between the hero and heroine, precipitated by her combing her "womanly curls" to get a rise (ahem) out of him. But, most of all, there was the treatment by the hero of the heroine. I could forgive the hero in Joan Johnston's The Bridegroom for marrying the heroine for revenge, but I could not forgive the titular hero of Dream Lover for sending the heroine back to her family after he'd gotten her pregnant, knowing she'd be brutalized for their time together.

The Scottish Bride by Peggy Hanchar - for a romance that is not also a suspense novel, this book wins the prize for most revolting romance I ever read. There's that tasteful little scene at the beginning when a man's head is served up on a platter. Then there's that scene later where the adult villain suckles at his mother's breast. Then there are those chapters upon chapters of hero/heroine separation. As I stated in my review of this book for The Romance Reader, the alliance between hero and heroine is based solely on lust and mistrust, "and so, back and forth they go, lusting and mistrusting."

Then there was Bogus Bride by Emily French. You might remember my discussion in a column long ago of a romance set in the 1800's where the well-bred 16-year-old virginal heroine takes the hero outside, puts his hands on her breasts, then pulls down his pants and proceeds to fellate him. Well, that's this book, and that scene will live forever in my mind. I know I'm not a stickler for historical accuracy, but the thought of that occurring in 1842 seemed implausible, to say the least, and did not bode well for the rest of the book. This is, btw, the only Harlequin Historical I've ever graded F.

Finally, there was Heart's Desire by Monica Jackson. I knew I was in for a bad read after reading page four, when the 30-year-old virginal heroine plays with her nipples at a party in a blatant attempt to seduce the hero in a ridiculous blackmail scheme. And, after having worked in a Civil Service environment where it takes a history of bad behavior and massive documentation to suspend someone (I know because I did it twice), I was a goner when I read the scene in which the hero suspends the heroine for insubordination for uttering, "You - you monster!".

This book was written with "kitchen-sink" plotting; in other words, the author threw in everything and the kitchen sink to make this an exciting, romantic read. The result was the worst book I read in 1998. Surprisingly enough, although I endured being called a racist, hateful bigot as a result of reviewing this book, I heard from no one after the book was actually released stating they agreed or disagreed with my review. How can someone criticize a review if they've not yet read the book? Oh well, I guess if there are reviewers out there who praise books they've obviously not read (and feel free to guess who I'm talking about), I shouldn't be surprised by anything anymore.

The Kitchen Sink:
There's a book that nearly made it onto my "books you love to hate" list, but didn't because it really wasn't worth the effort. That book is Beyond the Highland Mist by Karen Marie Moning. There are two reasons to talk about it, the first being that one scene which was actually well done was very reminiscent of a series of scenes in the far better Untamed by Elizabeth Lowell. The Moning book was the first book ever to remind me so closely of an earlier (and better) romance. Whether purposeful or not, I can't say.

The second reason I mention it now relates to one of the reasons I so disliked Heart's Desire - both featured kitchen sink plotting. What is kitchen sink plotting, you ask? It's when the author throws in everything in the sink, and then the sink itself to fill her book. Monica Jackson's book featured this type of plotting, and so did Karen Marie Moning's. As a result, the latter was so filled with angst and torture in getting the hero and heroine to reach their happily ever after that I was gritting my teeth by the time I finished the book. While the last couple of chapters were actually pretty good, it was too little, too late (or perhaps it was too much, too much?).

What accounts for kitchen sink plotting? Is it a matter of a manuscript not being long enough and requiring padding? Is it a trap new authors fall into to make up for a lack of characterization? Is this a phenomenon you are familiar with or had you not noticed it before?

Romances that Make You Grit Your Teeth:
Which brings us, finally, to another new feature we'll start today - Romances that Make You Grit Your Teeth. Books that make you grit your teeth are books which somehow impel you to finish them even though you are in misery reading them. The plots and book details don't stay in your mind like Books You Love to Hate. The only memory you carry of these books is the sore jaw you developed from clenching your teeth together as you read them. My nominations for this feature include the aforementioned Moning book, as well as Laura Kinsale's Dream Hunter, and the three Catherine Coulter medievals I read before giving up on her medievals for good.

Time to Post to the Message Board:

The Big Whine/The Big Blame: What are your feelings on lead characters who whine and/or blame? Can you handle it if they "grow out of it"? Do you think this type of character has been done to death? Do some romances read like one long pity party? What do you want to say to characters that can't seem to get over it? Is romance merely mirroring today's "everyone's a victim" society?

Emotional Baggage and the HEA Ending: How does seemingly unending emotional angst affect your ability to accept a happily-ever-after ending? Which romances have you read where you didn't believe the hero and heroine could be happy because of the depth of their despair? Conversely, which romances made believers out of you?

Romances You Hate to Love: Which romances are guilty pleasures for you? Share titles, authors, and the reasons why you love them, in addition to the reasons why you hate to love them.

Romances You Love to Hate: Which romances were so horrible they have stayed with you no matter how hard you've tried to empty your mind of them? Share titles, authors, and the reasons why you hate them, in addition to the reasons why you love to hate them.

The Kitchen Sink: What accounts for kitchen sink plotting? Is it a matter of a manuscript not being long enough and requiring padding? Is it a trap new authors fall into to make up for a lack of characterization? Is this a phenomenon you are familiar with or had you not noticed it before?

Romances That Make You Grit Your Teeth: Which romances impelled you to finish them even though you didn't like them? What about them, do you suppose, caused you to finish them? Was it because you'd heard the book or author was terrific? Was it because you make yourself finish every book you start?

Odds & Ends: Can you guess the name of the reviewer I'm talking about who reviews many, many books and yet, after you read her reviews, you wonder whether or not she even bothered to read the book? And, are there romances you have read that seem to have "borrowed" from other, better romances? (Or worse, that seem to have "borrowed" from bad romances?)

Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books

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