In March calls went out informing seventy-five authors that their books had been named finalists for the 2013 RITAs, romance fiction’s most prestigious awards. Winners in eleven categories will be announced July 20 at the 33rd annual conference of the Romance Writers of America. I know some romance readers—even some romance writers—pay little attention to these awards. And while I’m certainly no expert on the selection process, I know enough to know that the oft-repeated comparison to the Oscars is misleading since there is no RWA equivalent of voting within branches (writers for writers, actors for actors, film editors for film editors, etc.) by which the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences selects finalists or for all active members to vote for the winners. If I understand the RITA process correctly, finalists and winners are determined by small panels of judges. While I’m sure the judges make every effort to be fair and objective, I’m skeptical enough to think personal tastes and histories are bound to be a factor.
Now I don’t mean to rain on anybody’s parade. I’m an awards junkie, and since I spend considerably more time reading and writing about romance fiction than I do watching movies or television or listening to the kind of music that is the focus of most of the music award shows, the RITAs are the awards I’m most interested in. Whatever the process, they are the industry awards with the greatest cachet. I cheer wildly when favorite books and authors are recognized, regret the shortsightedness or questionable taste that ignored some deserving recognition, and check out unfamiliar finalists that I might find rewarding.
The posts that I’ll be sharing on alternate Saturdays between now and July 6 will be self-indulgent, romance-fan posts. I’m going to be looking only at the categories in which I have read most of the finalists and talking about the books I have read with a nostalgic glance at some favorite winners from the past and a few gripes about treasured books not included among the current finalists. I hope you’ll join me and share your own totally authentic, equally subjective views.
Checking past winners of the RITA for Best Public Secrets (1991), Private Scandals (1994), and Born in Ice (1996). Another Hall of Famer, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, practically owned the award for a while, winning for Nobody's Baby But Mine (1998), Dream A Little Dream, and First Lady (2001). More recently, Rachel Gibson (True Confessions, 2002; Not Another Bad Date, 2009) and Kristan Higgins (Catch of the Day, 2008; Too Good to Be True, 2010) have each won twice. One of this year’s finalists, Barbara Freethy, won in this category with her debut book, Daniel’s Gift, in 1997. It’s still my favorite Freethy. I’ve read all those listed above, some of them several times.
If I could grant a personal Worth Reading and Rereading in Any Year award to the three RITA winners in this category, I’d present my award to Again (1995) by Kathleen Gilles Seidel, No Place Like Home (2003) by Barbara Samuel and Bet Me (2005) by Jennifer Crusie.
- Seidel is an author I sorely miss. Till the Stars Fall, astoundingly not a RITA winner, is one of my most reread books, but I love Again almost as much. Since the heroine is a Georgette Heyer-loving chief writer for a soap opera set in Regency London and the hero plays a duke in said soap opera, reading Again is almost like getting a contemporary and a historical in one book. Seidel proves that romance can be intelligent, funny, and sigh-worthy at the same time. Will somebody please digitalize Seidel’s books? My copies are falling to bits, and I’d pay trade pb prices to have them on my Kindle.
- I’d read a McDonald’s ad if Barbara Samuel wrote the copy, and No Place Like Home is one of my most beloved reads ever. Even though it is classified as contemporary romance, it is a good fit with the women’s fiction titles this Hall of Fame author has written as Barbara Samuel and as Barbara O’Neal. This powerful, emotional first-person tale features a heroine who ran away with a musician and returns more than two decades later, still estranged from her father, with a seventeen-year-old-son and a gay best friend dying of AIDS. Her hero, a wanderer named Malachi, is the brother of the best friend.
- Back when the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn bulletin board was alive and several thousand strong, we ran a poll for the romance of the decade, a book that set a standard by which others would be judged. Crusie’s Bet Me was the undisputed winner. With a zaftig heroine, a hero who gives her Krispy Kremes and loves her as she is, and a cat named Elvis, this one is funny, sweet (unexpectedly so for a Crusie), smart, and irresistible—within a hair’s breadth of perfect IMO.
One thing that most of my favorite contemporary authors have in common is their ability to create characters who are imperfect, in process, and at home in the 21st century. For me, it’s particularly important that these qualities hold true for the heroine, and the heroines in these six finalists satisfied on all counts.
- by Ruthie Knox: I love that Cath enjoyed her work at the Victoria and Albert Museum, that she speculates about other passengers on the tube, and that she is determined to become a new Cath because she made some bad choices as the old Cath.
- by Roxanne St. Claire: Lacey is a survivor. She survived a bad relationship, a hurricane that left her home in pieces, and life with a teenage daughter. She survives because of her own toughness and tenacity but also because she has great friends who show up when she needs them, who call her on the excuses she gives to avoid action, and who love her at her best and her worst.
- by Jill Shalvis; by Jill Shalvis: Shalvis is terrific at creating heroines who, like most of the women I know from teenagers to octogenarians, are full of contradictions. Grace (Forever and a Day) is a bit of a ditz, but she’s also smart intellectually and emotionally. Mallory (Lucky in Love) is a classic good girl who wants to let her inner bad girl loose. They are also funny. I like heroines who make me laugh, the kind of genuinely affectionate, I’m-glad-I-know-you laughter that my good friends inspire. Grace and Mallory evoke this kind of laughter.
- by Kim Law: I’m no fan of self-abnegating heroines, but experience has taught me that love sometimes requires sacrifices. I have a particular fondness for heroines who reshape their dreams to fit unexpected choices they were forced to make. Lee Ann is this kind of heroine, and it’s all the sweeter when, against huge odds, she gets her HEA.
- by Barbara Freethy: Emotions can be messy, and where grief is concerned, they can also be ugly. Women in fiction and in life are sometimes denied free expression of such feelings. Freethy allows Alicia to be angry and even cruel as she struggles with her brother’s death five days before he was due to end his enlistment in the Marine Corps. Toxins have to be released before healing can occur. Alicia’s actions ring true to me.
by Roni Loren and by Barbara Hannay are also finalists in this category. I haven’t read these books. I checked them out. Melt into You sounds too edgy to be in my comfort zone, but I plan to read Zoe’s Muster if I can find it at the library or if it turns up as a Daily Deal.
Now it’s your turn. How many of these finalists have you read? Do you have a favorite in the category? What missing contemporary titles would you have included?