Now that August is here, there’s a shift in the air. The long, sunny days of summer are coming to an end, back to school displays -and even some Halloween merchandise already- and those of the younger set scramble to make headway on their summer reading lists, or savor them, if they’re anything like many of us when we were kids. Many of those reading lists contain what are termed classics of literature, books whose stories have stood the test of time, even if certain aspects of the book still remain firmly rooted in their era of origin. If this can be true of the books in the “literary” canon, it only stands to reason that this can be true of other genres as well. Check the library shelves for mystery, science fiction and/or fantasy, and horror, and there will be plenty of anthologies for those who love or are curious about the genres. Seeing as how romance fiction is predominantly full length novels, mushing together forty or fifty of the very best in one volume (apart from the contents of an e-reader) might prove tricky, but it doesn’t mean it’s not possible for interested readers to go back to (old) school in romance. How so? Let’s take a look.
If there’s one thing that defines most romance readers, it is that we are passionate about our favorite genre, and even a flicker of interest will have many of us writing down long lists of recommended reads. While there are actual classes on the romance novel as literary form, for those of us not in the realm of academia, our faculty consists of all the readers (and writers) who have come before us. There has never been a time when a romance reader, new or seasoned, has had so many different flavors of romance available at any given time. The array of choice, in newly released romance alone, can be downright dizzying, and, since series currently rule the day, finding one book that looks interesting may mean doing some homework first, and/or reading as few as one and as many as, well, we haven’t found a cap on that one yet, others before the book that initially caught the reader’s eye comes into play. Sometimes, a reader wants to try something different, but with literally decades worth of books, where’s a reader to start?
The answer lies very much nearby…with other readers. Whether it’s picking the brain of one’s local librarian (and romance friendly librarians are indeed a treasure) or throwing out a line on an Internet message board, every reader has their hidden gems to recommend, because we all come to reading in our own unique way. Browsing library stacks, library sales, or the shelves of used bookstores, is one way to find books one may have missed the first time around, or may have never known existed. Friends who like to trade books on a regular basis know the benefits of this practice, and it doesn’t always have to happen with coinciding tastes. I once had a friend with very different tastes from my own, and we had several rounds of “ugh, I hated this book; you’ll love it” -and we were usually right. “Oh, that sounds horrible. Send it to me,” also got a fair amount of play. Though life took us in different directions, that’s a lesson I learned well, and now I know to pay attention to others’ tastes; if they hate, hate, hate trope X and I love, love, love it, all I have to do is keep an eye or ear peeled for their latest rant, and I know I’ll have some good reading ahead.
Back when I was in college, a friend one chased me down to personally place Lovesong, by Valerie Sherwood, into my hand, and told me she had just given me my new favorite book. I was bewildered at first, but as soon as I started reading, I saw she was right, and gobbled all of Ms. Sherwood’s historicals, as well as a few of her gothics, under her Jeanne Hines name. The search continues for the rest. While I’d been too put off by the amount of books (only seven, which was a lot back in those days, mere pittance now) in Aola Vandergriff’s Daughters of… series when they were new, a crawl around the bottom shelves of a favorite UBS yielded the first in the series, and before I knew it, I was captivated by the tale of three sisters, abandoned on the trail west with a wagon but no horses, and the dynasty that sprang from their lives and loves.
Books written in different times, whether they were originally written as contemporaries, but now read as historical, or were historicals at the get-go, provide a different look at both storytelling and the history of romance publishing. Curious about what it was like when standalone romances were the norm? When one author might write a western with their first book, go to pirates for the second, then highwaymen, then medieval France, then the American Revolution, then Renaissance Italy, and what’s that about the next book being set during the Boer War? Better go look that up, so as to have a better handle on the historical references before the story begins. For books that were contemporary at the outset, the “now” of only a few years ago means that the lovers inhabited a totally different world, before the Internet, ATMs, or TSA screenings. Whole different landscape to traverse there, and, especially for those who grew up without such alien inventions as pay phones and TV stations that signed off at midnight, it’s a brave new world of reading.
Fashions change in reading, writing, publishing and cover art, so it’s entirely possible that the funny looking cover a reader once passed over may actually contain a story they never would have given a second glance, but might still be their next new favorite. What hidden gem from your own storied (pun intended) past would you recommend to an interested reader looking for something different?
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. What book from ages past, historical, contemporary, or that new 90s upstart, paranormal, would you dangle in front of an adventurous reader? What’s the one thing that keeps the spark going, all these years after your first time dipping into its pages? What currently producing authors or currently available titles would you say are the spiritual successors to your old school favorites? If one-time favorites no longer hold their initial appeal, we want to hear about that, too. What changed, and when? Was it them or was it you? Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.