Issue #83 (November 15, 1999)

Links from this column are "jump links" and will open up new windows in your browser.

There are some common thread running through this column, but some of the segments are admittedly jumbled together. First we're going to tackle grading of the books we love to read, and re-reading and other criterion that make up our Desert Isle Keepers. We'll also talk about those never-superfluous bookstore trips so many of us can't help but make. Then, from the desk of AAR Editor Ellen Micheletti comes a discussion of the titles of romances, and key words that have gotten out of hand. From titles gone awry we'll talk about changing tastes in the context of prose styles.

What's in a Grade?
We have such a large group of reviewers at AAR that I set up an internal discussion list for us. Recently, we've been talking about grades, and my reading and reviewing of The Courtship by Catherine Coulter spurred the discussion into a different direction, at least for me.

As I indicated in the last issue of this column, if I consider a book to be re-readable, it's going to earn a grade of A from me. Other factors go into it, but that's the final arbiter for all but a couple of the romances that are my all-time keepers (or Desert Isle Keepers aka DIK's). While I actually keep all books with a grade of B- or above, an all-time favorite keeper, a book I'll grade A, is one that will stand the test of time and many re-reads. That's why I'm always amazed at readers who grade more than 3 or 4 books a year as A's. In the first two years that I read romance, I handed A's out fast and furiously, but I was truly reading some of the best of the best. In 1992 through 1993, the first two years I read romance, I awarded Desert Isle Keeper status to 20 romances. It's taken six years for me to award an additional 19 romances DIK status. In the nearly two years that we've been doing reviews here at AAR, I've awarded DIK status to only 4 new romances.

The reviewers at AAR run the gamut in their grading. Taken as a whole, of the new books we've reviewed, 11% have received DIK status while 37% have received grades in the B range. That's right - nearly 50% of the new books we've reviewed have gotten positive reviews. Blythe, one of our toughest reviewers (she's given 29 books D's since she joined us mid-way through 1998), has awarded DIK status on 8 new romances, while Ellen, here for nearly the entire two years, has given 15 new romances DIK status. (Each has also written DIK reviews for older all-time favorites, but those choices are not figured into their numbers.)

Each book starts with a clean slate with me - if I had to compute it, it would begin with a C and move either up or down from there. (Rumor has it that Romantic Times has its reviewers start with a rating of 4 - which is considers "very good" - and work up or down from there.) A B+ means I highly recommend a book, and perhaps it's very nearly a keeper, but something will stop me from wanting to re-read it - it's just not quite good enough. A B means it was good, a quick read, a worthwhile read, perhaps with a flaw. A grade of B- is a qualified recommendation - the book was good, but there were noticeable and tangible flaws. I'd recommend it, but with a caveat or two.

Books in the C range are more or less average. Here's where it can get sticky. More or less average to me, when it's a series romance, means more or less forgettable. I might breeze through one of these in two hours, in one sitting, but I'm likely to forget about it an hour later. More or less average to me, when it's a full-length, single title romance, may not mean more or less forgettable. For one thing, if a longer book is average, I'm not going to breeze through it; I'm likely to have found it fairly boring. If I breeze through a single title romance quickly, and in one sitting no less, that pretty much guarantees it'll get some form of a B from me.

D's are not difficult to grade - these books bored me to tears. As for F's, I hated these books with a passion. In some cases I may have felt impelled to complete them, but make no mistake about it - my teeth were clenched the entire time. With other F's, I had to resort to other tactics to complete them, such as reading backwards, skimming so many times I actually read them, or setting myself chapter limits each and every day until the damn thing was done.

After I read Coulter's The Courtship and was preparing my review, I decided to include in the review a summary of the grades I'd given her in the past seven years. It turns out I've read more books by her than by any other author. (Nora Roberts comes in second with 21, third is Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick with 19 books, and fourth is Julie Garwood with 17 books read.) I've loved or liked almost precisely the same number of books I've disliked or hated by Coulter. Only two books, in the end, earned a grade of C from me.

I wasn't really surprised to learn I'd read more books by Coulter than by any other author, although learning that Nora and JAK had passed Garwood by in terms of sheer numbers did surprise me (guess those series titles add up, especially in Nora's case). What surprised me about the Coulter's I'd read was that I haven't truly loved one of her books since 1993, and yet I continue to buy and read her non-medieval historicals quite religiously. While I have graded two of her books since then in the B range, none of her books really bowled me in the last six years until The Courtship came along.

Wow! That's quite remarkable, don't you think? What other author, I then began to think, has inspired such loyalty? Yes, I'd given five Coulter romances DIK status, but I'd also graded four of her books F's. I know for some readers, this author is Jude Deveraux, or perhaps Diana Palmer, or even Janet Dailey. Who is it for you?

If I went down my list of authors most read, I first come to Nora Roberts, with three DIK's - the lowest grade I've ever given her is in the C range. JAK/Amanda Quick has never earned DIK status from me, and though a couple of her books have earned D's, Most are in the B range. As for Julie Garwood, I've awarded nine of her books DIK status, and though it's been several years since she's gotten such a stellar grade from me, those 9 books speak for themselves.

I'm very interested in hearing from you on how you grade or rate the romances you read. Which authors have you read the most, and how many books by them have you read?

Granting Desert Isle Keeper Status:
Because re-reading a book is the final criterion I use in decided whether or not to grant a book DIK status, I was very interested in learning how other readers feel about re-reading. I asked about it in the last issue of LN&V, and I'd like to share some of what you wrote in response.

Jen wrote that she has deemed many books keepers in the past that don't stand the test of time. After a recent move, she was unpacking many boxes of books and discovered "books that were keepers at the time I bought them and read and re-read them a few times, but now it's 'why the heck did I keep this' or 'what did I ever see in this book that made it a keeper?' "

I've wondered about this myself and can honestly say that, with the romances I've deemed all-time keepers, that hasn't happened. Obviously I over-graded three Coulter books in the past, and I've probably over (or under-graded) three additional romances, but never one I've given DIK status. I think it's because I set the bar very high on those books . Something tells me that if I were granting DIK status ten times a year, some of them wouldn't stand up five years from now.

Sheryl won't even call a book a true keeper unless she's re-read it at least once. While she says she tends to keep lots of books she's enjoyed around, "but if I go to re-read it and it doesn't grab me the second time, out it goes. True keepers, on the other hand, get better with age. I notice this especially with Heyer - I rip through it the first time just for plot, then re-read bits leisurely, enjoying the characters. She's one where I often intend just to re-read this or that scene but I end up re-reading the whole book after all"

Karen, on the other hand, really only keeps books that she wants to re-read. She wrote:

"I only 'really' keep books that I want to reread many times. I'm not someone who gets a lot out of rereading - I do it with certain books, warm and fuzzy books, but most of the time, it just doesn't do it for me. Many times, I will read a book, and think, 'this was great, maybe I'll read it again'. So I'll set it aside, and six months later or so, I'll read it again. Usually, that's it. The second time through, it's OK and I'll pick up on some new things, but it doesn't have that 'spark' that it had the first time.

"The only books I read over and over again are comfy reads, ones that just appeal to me in a particular way. I have one box of these, and I can pick them up over and over. But they aren't necessarily the 'best' books I've ever read, they just happen to appeal to me in a warm, fuzzy, comfortable way. Like chicken noodle soup when you're sick. On the other hand, I can read a book, give it 5-stars, and never really want to reread. If a book keeps me turning the pages, if I stay up until 5 am because I just can't put it down, if the characters stay with me for days later, then that's a 5-star book for me. But many times, I'll get to the end, and I don't want to go on that journey again. Been there, done that. But that's not necessarily a sign that the book isn't as good as another book that I might want to curl up with and read over and over - just different."

Readers who enjoy romantic suspense can't really use the re-read criterion in granting all-time favorite status, as MsAggie points out. Once you know who the villain is, and how his/her nefarious scheme is resolved, you're not apt to re-read the book. I've heard this from a number of readers, most of whom cite J.D. Robb's In Death series as the exception. They feature such strong characterization and delicious romance that they can and are re-read regularly.

The Call of the . . . Bookstore?

My daughter and I made a trip to Half-Priced Books Sunday - it's a huge UBS chain selling books and music, and the idea to go wasn't even mine. Thank goodness Rachael caught the reading bug from me early on. We've had a lot of remodeling in our house for the past six months, and since I want a house without clutter, I decided that anything earning less than a B- from me is out the door. Slowly but surely I've been trading in these so-so books, and by today I had another box to trade, so it worked out great. She picked out six books, I picked out two, and with the money we earned from our trade, we came out even. Almost.

Because, you see, as we were leaving the store, I noticed four big bags of books getting ready to be processed by the "trade" department. I noticed a huge group of Elizabeth Lowell series titles, as well as those funky Nora Roberts Language of Love books. If anyone knows what this series of four dozen books is about, let me know. Anyway, this huge treasure-trove of books hadn't been put into the system yet, but I brazenly asked if I could pick through them - I just knew if I could get my hands on them first, I'd find some terrific stuff. They let me wait in the corner and said I could look through them after they were processed but before they were shelved. In fifteen minutes, I was allowed to look them over.

They talk about shopaholism and the symptoms people get who are addicted to buying. The rapid pulse, the tunnel vision, the rush of adrenaline. I had 'em all, and was soon on my way back to the checkout counter with nine more books to buy. When I got home, I proudly showed off my purchase to my husband. Nine books for $22.00, I exclaimed! What a deal on all these books, especially since I knew two of them had recently been reissued for $6.00 apiece and I was getting them for half the price of the original, roughly $3.50 price. While my husband can get as excited about a bargain as I can, the nine books sort of overwhelmed him. It may take him the better part of a year to read nine books, depending on how many business trips he has to get on an airplane for.

This was not the first time I've made more than one trip to the checkout line at a bookstore. At the romance-friendly bookstore where I buy almost all my new books, I often am almost out the door with six to eight brand-new books (purchased at nearly full price), when I decide I have a few minutes to spend "in the stacks." Spying a book I've decided I want often leads to a huddled conference at the desk with the owner of the store over earlier or subsequent books in a series. Pretty soon, a half-hour has gone by, one of us has climbed a ladder while the other has practically crawled on the floor looking for an elusive title.

Earlier this year we talked about the incessant call of the bookstore - that feeling you have when you are impelled to visit a bookstore. Whether you have nothing to read, or nothing to read even though you have a tbr stack of hundreds, many readers experience this hypnotic and magical pull. I know that, for myself, I simply have to go to a bookstore (or the book aisle at another type of store) at least once a week or I don't feel right. I might not buy a thing, but at least I won't have missed anything.

That call to the bookstore is something Mary Lynne certainly feels. She wrote, "Bookstores have radar that summon hapless readers. It's petrifying. It's become even harder for me since I moved to an area that has some excellent UBS's. It's tough to avoid stopping at them on the way home from work, on the way to the supermarket. . . but it's not just bookstores, it's Kmart, Wal-Mart, the online bookstores and online auction houses. Thank God for credit cards! It's amazing I can function with all these signals coming in from the various retailers!"

Mary Lynne raises an interesting point - those online auctions. I hope you'll share those auction experiences with us when it's time to post to the message board. I haven't tried to buy a book at auction yet.

Nancy Beth brings up a situation I've faced myself, when I've been without much cash and the checkbook's back home. What to do when you have to use a credit card and you've only picked out one book? It's rather embarrassing to pay for one book by credit card, don't you think? Are you more apt to put the book back until next time, or to pick out another book (or two) so you can buy that first book now? For Nancy Lynne, option two is the more likely scenario.

Deirdre has also felt the call of the bookstore. She wrote of one day's excursion that included four bags of books from three bookstores and a thrift store. She not only buys for herself, but also has some very lucky friends! And Guinevere, who also feels the incessant call of the bookstore, generates such enthusiasm that her husband actually encourages her at this point, as he's the recipient of the delightful mood she's apt to be in after she's read a terrific romance. She wrote, "I found 4 Jean Plaidy books and 2 Susan Wiggs that I didn't have and you would have thought I struck gold. Here's to books and used bookstores! What would we do without them?"

A Name is a Name is a Name. . .
Unless It's a Bad One!
Don't you get tired of stupid titles? You know the ones I mean - the ones that have been plaguing series romance for the past couple of years. The ones with Bride, Baby, Virgin, and Cowboy in them? Then to add to the stupid titles, the characters and plots seem to have been created on an assembly line. The men are all cowboys, the women all virgins. Let's not forget someone has amnesia, and there's bound to be a baby tucked in there somewhere as well.

I don't know about you, but my first reaction on seeing a book with the title Virgin Without a Memory or The Rancher & the Amnesiac Bride is to run screaming in the opposite direction. Yes, I have bought books with silly titles like Older, Wiser, Pregnant but I only bought that one because it was by Marilyn Pappano and I knew that I could depend on her for a good book despite the title - and it was a fairly good book. But what if I did not know the author of the book with the stupid title? In that case I would have to have either a good review or a good word of mouth about the book or the blurb had better be darn informative, because I am fast losing patience with stupid titles.

It's as if the publishers take a few buzzwords like Bride, Cowboy, Baby, Virgin, Rancher, and Pregnant and whirl them in a blender to come up with:

  • The Virgin and the Cowboy
  • The Bride and the Cowboy
  • The Pregnant Virgin and the Cowboy Rancher
  • The Virgin, the Baby and the Cowboy
  • The Cowboy and the Virgin Rancher
  • The Rancher and the Virgin Cowboy (oops, virgin heroines may be de rigueur, but virgin heroes are scarce in these here parts.)
  • The Bride and the Baby Cowboy
See what I mean?

Now I have nothing against babies, cowboys, and virgins - but I would like a bit of originality here. There are other occupations for our hero to have. Also there are women who are not virgins and men who are - how about more fully exploring that possibility? (For those of you who enjoy romances with virginal heroes, we invite you to check out our Virginal Heroes special title listing.)

I enjoy series romance. Some of the best writers out there are in the series field, but there are times I wonder if I might have missed a gem of a book because it is cursed with a title from hell, like The Baby Cowboy and the Pregnant Amnesiac or Having a Secret Affair With My Boss, the Cowboy.

There are series romances that have good titles, like Prince Joe, Light of Day, Harvard's Education, and Badge of Honor - it can be done. Plus, I have read series romances that had plots that were not the same old, same old. For instance:

  • The Loner by Lass Small. Not the best book in the world, but the hero is a virgin.

  • Annie and the Outlaw by Sharon Sala. The hero is a western outlaw who is sent back to earth by God and given a second chance at redemption.

  • Kiss of the Beast by Mallory Rush. The hero is an alien.

  • Dragonslayer by Emilie Richards. The hero is a minister.

  • Barefoot in the Grass by Judith Arnold. The heroine has had a mastectomy.

  • A Soldier's Heart by Kathleen Korbel. The heroine is a military nurse suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
These are older titles in the series arena and it seems to me that the older novels had more variety. They had not yet been taken over by the too-prevalent baby-virgin-cowboy plots that we have so much of now. I know the cycle will turn eventually, but in the meantime, I'd like to put in a plea for more variety and some titles I can read in public without having to explain that this is a good book - really!!

The Tastes. . . Are They a Changing?
As I've begun reading more and more contemporary romances in the past couple of years, I've noticed that my taste for a certain type of romance writing has changed. I've also noticed this change when readying reviews by AAR Reviewers for posting at the site when I've read the books they've reviewed. My tolerance for purple is practically nil, and my favorite color happens to be purple.

Purple prose refers to overly "strong language," according to my dictionary, but that's not a particularly good definition. Not limited to love scenes, although that's what many romance readers associate with it, purple prose refers to flowery language. Instead of saying something simply, purple prose dramatizes in too strong a fashion. Purple prose may be in the dialogue, a description, and, for me, may permeate the entire book. There are no nuances left because everything is heightened. On very rare occasions I can get into this style, while at other times it is so overwrought I'm exhausted after reading several chapters.

Perhaps, though, when I refer to an entire style of writing as purple, I'm wrong. The reason why I'm re-thinking this issue is that some of our reviewers have gone gaga over books that I think are overwrought. These reviewers know good writing from bad, so perhaps there really is not a style known as "purple." Can you help me refine this discussion and devise the appropriate name? I like to think of it as broader than purple prose, and more of a purple style all the way through. Let's bring up some authors and titles on the message board and have a go at it, shall we? To start the discussion, I'll mention Elizabeth Lowell and three of her romances.

I've mentioned before that I loved Lowell's Too Hot to Handle, despite and even perhaps because it was filled with purple prose and overly dramatic moments. Not so very long ago I reviewed Lowell's Remember Summer, which featured a similar style. Too much of a good thing, though, and I was exhausted long before the end of the book. AAR Reviews Editor Marianne Stillings, when she was still reviewing, wrote a DIK review of Lowell's To the Ends of the Earth, which was a re-write of a series romance as a full-length contemporary (as was Remember Summer). She absolutely raved about it. I started reading it at roughly the same time as she, but gave up at the halfway mark, skimming ahead, only to realize I didn't have the emotional gumption to finish it. It was simply too much - too much. Too dramatic, too gut wrenching - too much. The hero was too stubborn, the heroine and what happened to her too sad - too much!

Are there authors out there who are "too much" for you? It goes beyond the prose, which is often a hallmark of this style of writing, and goes into content. But, the content of this type of book does not necessary suffer from "kitchen-sink plotting," although sometimes it does. There's just something that's just over the top and too much, which is why I keep coming back to the term "purple prose." But it's really more than the prose, so what is it?

My reading of more contemporary romances in recent years, for some reason, has affected my reading of historical romances. While I've referred to Elizabeth Lowell's "too much" style, it seems that the purple style more often permeates historical romance than it does contemporary romance. Perhaps that is because an historical romance is already, on some level, unreal because of the distance of time. If dramatic moments are added at such a level as to become over-dramatic, perhaps these same books become even more unreal. Perhaps reality has nothing to do with it and I've just gone past dramatic historicals. I say this because all too many of the historicals I hear raved about, both at this site and at others, are books I can't seem to get into. What about you?

Time to Post to the Message Board:

Here are the topics I'd like you to consider posting about:

    What's in a Grade? How do you grade or rate the romances you read? Do your yearly results look like a bell curve, or do they bulge at the high or low end? I grade more of the books I review in the B range (44%), with C's in second place (35%). I've given more D's than A's, and very few F's. Perhaps it's time for a top ten list, so feel free to list your top favorite romances (more or less), and why they became DIK's for you. Finally, let's talk about author loyalty, and how that loyalty has paid off for you.

    The Call of the Bookstore How many trips to the bookstore (or book aisle of another type of store) do you make in a month? How many books would you say you buy in a month? Are you lucky enough to share your bookaholism with a family member or friend? Have you ever visited the checkout line more than once in a single visit?

    Titles Gone Awry (from the desk of AAR Editor Ellen Micheletti). Ellen's rant really goes beyond titles and into the narrowing storylines plaguing series romances these days. Feel free to post about titles, or about these narrowing confines.

    The Color Purple How often do you notice purple writing? In love scenes, descriptions, or dialogue? What about in the content of the writing itself? Is there a "too much" style? Is it more noticeable in historicals, series romance, or single title contemporaries? Give titles and authors, please, and help refine the description and define its name.

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

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

Click here to join aarmaillist
Click to subscribe to AAR's twice-monthly mailing list