In honor of the 30th anniversary of reading my first romance novel, I thought I'd take a walk down memory lane, revisiting the good, the bad, and the unread.
I was allowed to read my first romance novel when I turned 13. I had always loved the romantic elements in Nancy Drew, the Janet Lambert books and others I was allowed to read, but a REAL romance novel was my Holy Grail. On my 13th birthday, I picked out my first romance novel from the Spokane Public Library. It's funny how vivid that moment remains in my mind to this day. I remember the wire rack with all the covers facing me, begging me to pick one. I must have stood there for 10 minutes before making a decision. I chose A Very Naughty Angel by Cartland, Barbara. It was everything a first romance novel should be: a virginal heroine looking for a taste of adventure before she is married against her will, a handsome rogue who is really the prince in disguise, a night of steamy passion (Okay this is a Barbara Cartland after all, so steamy was just a few kisses, but come on, I was 13! This was passion!)
I then discovered Harlequin Romances. Good Housekeeping used to reprint condensed Harlequins in their magazines. I read To Catch a Butterfly by Marjorie Lewty and was hooked. I must have read several hundred that first year. Who could forget Adair of Starlight Peaks by Essie Summers or my favorite, Desert Barbarian by Charlotte Lamb? I moved on to Harlequin Presents and those domineering Greek men -- Violet Winspear, Anne Mather, Anne Hampson. And then along came an American writer, Janet Dailey. I used to hang out in the book department at Sears (yes, they used to have books) every month waiting for the next state to be published. To this day Fiesta San Antonio is one of my favorite books of all time. I was happily reading the kisses only Dailey books, but then came Touch the Wind. Some may point to other groundbreaking romance novels, but for me, this was the big one. This book had S-E-X. I remember passing it around at school and all my friends reading the "good" parts.
I get my love of reading from my paternal grandmother, another voracious reader. Until the day she died, we swapped books back and forth. I remember turning 16, the age that she thought appropriate to read The Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes. Luckily, my birthday is in the summertime because I read one of those books every day for 8 days and didn't get dressed at all. I think my parents thought there was something wrong with me, but I guess by then they were used to used to my obsession with books.
The next several years are a blur for me. School and boys got in the way of reading. I know I read Linda Howard, Stephanie James, Jayne Ann Krentz and even a few by Diana Palmer. I got into historicals with A Pirate's Love by Johanna Lindsey, The Windflower by Laura London and Sweet Surrender by Catherine Coulter. I also read a lot of completely forgettable Western-set romances in the Zebra Heartfire line. To this day, I refuse to read Western-set romances -- I think those books actually did me harm.
I found my first used book store when I was in high school. I had always gotten my books from the library, never owning any of my own. The store was really an old house, but since it was on a major thoroughfare, it had been leased as retail space. Each little room had its own genre -- series romance in one, mysteries in another. I would spend hours sitting and going through books. How would I spend what little money I had? I would go to garage sales or mooch books off my parents' friends. Anything to get cheap books to trade back in to the store and get what I wanted to read. Even after graduating from college and finally earning real money, that behavior never changed.
You always have that one friend who is never ready when they say they are going to be ready. My sophomore year in college, I discovered Lavyrle Spencer this way. My friend had left a copy of Separate Beds in her dorm room and while I waited, I read. I would much rather have finished that book than gone out to a party, but I wasn't so lucky.
When I graduated from college and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I had a lot more time to read. I discovered the Loveswept line and Kay Hooper, Iris Johansen and Sandra Brown, authors I still enjoy today. Those were the days of Karen Robards, Amanda Quick, and Katherine Stone. I also discovered Nora Roberts about this time. I hadn't read her series books, but I did read Hot Ice and loved it. There were lots of used book stores in those days and I would drive around all day looking for treasures. I even worked part-time in one for awhile. That's how I found Julie Garwood, Jude Deveraux and Judith McNaught. There is nothing like working in a book store for getting great author recommendations. Customers would tell me about the great books they were reading and I would just have to have all those books. This is when my book collecting began. Before working in the store, I only owned books that I would be reading shortly. I never had more than 15-20. Well, with all the recommendations, my TBR grew to several hundred in a hurry. Today it's at 2500, so I guess I can blame all this on that little store.
I moved to Los Angeles for business school, another great area for used book stores. Somehow I always end up living in places with great access to used books. Well, except for the summer I spent doing an internship in New York City. I could never live there! There is not a single used book store in the city that stocks romance novels. Luckily I had that huge TBR stack to get me through the summer. And I did start reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips that summer. I also got around to Kathleen Gilles Seidel and Judith Duncan, not as well known but great reads nonetheless.
I moved to Dallas after graduation to work for an airline. There is probably no better place to live if you love romance novels. The rents were so low that stores could stock all the old romances, not just the new ones. I was in heaven and I spent so much time flying that I had plenty of time to read. I started reading Regencies pretty heavily at this time. I had always enjoyed the period, but had not yet discovered the traditional Regency. After reading Loretta Chase, Jo Beverley, Carla Kelly and Mary Balogh, I became a lifelong fan. I am so disappointed that the traditional Regency is gone. I do, however, have several hundred of them in my TBR stack, so I'm set for a few years yet.
When I got married and moved to Chicago, I started reading a lot more Regency historicals too. I've mentioned that I rarely buy new books, but one night I was waiting for a prescription to be filled and picked up All Things Beautiful by Cathy Maxwell. After reading the first few chapters, there was no way I was leaving the store without that book. I also started reading Julia Quinn, Danelle Harmon, Jo Goodman and Mary Jo Putney. A local UBS owner demanded that I read Georgette Heyer and I am so glad I allowed myself to be persuaded.
When I moved back to Los Angeles ten years ago, I began to read a lot more romantic comedy, I glommed Jennifer Crusie, Rachel Gibson, and Janet Evanovich. I have to admit I tried quite a few others with mixed results. I would bet that comedy is the most difficult to write. I found most of these comedies just stupid, slapstick humor. I have since given up on Evanovich for just that reason.
I also tried a bunch of the paranormals when they became so popular a few years back -- Christine Feehan, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Karen Marie Moning. I decided that they just weren't for me. I prefer less world building and more relationship building in my romances. But for general fiction or fantasy, it's fine. I love Charlaine Harris, after all.
Today, I still read most of the authors I've talked about here. I do find new authors every now and then, but the bulk of the books in my TBR pile have publication dates more than 5 years old. I don't like the trend toward more graphic sex. No one believes me when I say I don't read romance novels for the sex, but it's true. Sexual tension is so much more exciting than jumping straight to the physical act. Many of the older romances got this right, the newer ones don't. I know I'm not alone here. Several members of my book club read more old romances than new. Everything is cyclical and the kind of books I like will come around again. But until then I have 2500 books to read!