Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

A Berenstain Bears children's book taught me the exact phrase of the title and it is amazing how often it comes up. You might wonder what this has to do with Dream Mountain by Gena Hale and the answer is a lot.

I'm not going to do a full review, but here's what I'll say. The things I enjoyed as well as the issues I had with Paradise Island continued in the sequel. To me, there were too many POV characters, too much plot and the romance came in too late, at page 126 of 248. That said, the characters were appealing, the romance, once it started, was strong and the story another rough and tumble intrigue with twists and tangles enough to please practically anyone. I suspect the third book will be much the same balance when I read it.

Now on to the title of this piece which is not actually a review, but a stray thought finally. I'm using Dream Mountain as an example, but remember that this part is out of the author's control and certainly not limited to these novels.

I am your typical Harlequin Presents romance reader. I don't read for the formula but rather for the emotions within the story. If the framework has similarities to other novels, as long as the characters are unique and their sorrows and passions make my gut clench, I'm happy. The trend toward mystery and thriller romances is one that honestly has left me behind. Romances are short and the more story that's taken up by things other than the relationship between the main characters the more pages taken from exactly why I read romances. If I want to read something with a world saving plot or a political intrigue, I'll pick up fantasy or science fiction. With romance, I'm looking for interpersonal conflict, relationship obstacles and emotional meltdowns.

That said, Sheila Kelly, besides being a friend (or so I think of her whatever she might consider me ;)), is a writer whose work generally pulls me in even though she doesn't write the types of books I seek out. Her SF is more space opera action thriller than my preference of sociological SF and her romances tend toward the thriller side. Therefore, when I picked up the Gena Hale romances, I thought I'd found a section of her writing (since she writes under so many names) that would not only pull me in, but actually fall into one of the types I seek out. As you can tell from my reviews, they were not of the type I prefer. So why would I think this, having read almost everything else she's written? Simple. That's what the marketing folks chose to convey.

Dream Mountain is written under a different pseudonym than the intrigues by Jessica Hall, the cover is in pastels and shows an isolated cabin on a blanket of snow with sheltering mountains behind, the title is in fancy script with shiny blue letters, and the teaser says: "Where two lost hearts find a love that dreams are made of...."

Step back and think about that description. Where do you see the mobster who buys the coal mine to sell the tailings to the Chinese Tong? Where is the hint that the lost hearts would be one abandoned by her uncle in a mountain cabin with no way to escape and the other is fighting for his life while contract killers try to eliminate him because of what he knows? What? You didn't expect that description? I can't say I did either, though I had a hint of the disconnect between the cover and what lay beneath because Paradise Island is the same way.

If you look at the bottom, there is a quote that does match the contents: "Nonstop adventure, gnarly intrigue, lots of laughs...and a hunk, what more could you ask? -- Catherine Coulter." Still, I have name recognition issues and how do I know Catherine Coulter shares my taste. I rarely read the reader blurbs for that reason, or at least the ones on the cover because by then I've usually made a decision to buy the book already.

I see this disconnect as a problem with expectations. When I read the Jessica Hall books, I knew they were thrillers; the covers made that much clear. With the right mindset going in, the Chinese Tong, family tradition and betrayal, the CIA and others didn't confuse or shock me, nor did they interfere with my enjoyment of the novels. I don't always read the backs of books, and never when I choose a book for the author. So, all I have to go on is the cover itself. In this case, the cover lied to me and affected how I read the book.

The story is good, if a little overloaded, but the lie of the cover made me spend the beginning thrown off and confused. I can't help wondering what the publisher was thinking in choosing to present this novel in this way. How many picked it up only to be disappointed when the relationship doesn't get top billing? How many looked away and toward the obvious thrillers because that's what they prefer, thinking this pastel beauty would be all about the internal conflicts?

This is a topic that comes up every once and a while among readers, but never have I personally experienced such an obvious case. Now I have to wonder how many books have I looked away from simply because of the cover when it could have been one of my favorites had I only given the author a chance? And how are we to judge when we can't trust the publisher to steer us the right way? With so many books published every year, there has to be something to narrow books down to the ones that get further consideration. Suddenly, I understand why word of mouth is more important than anything else.

So, what are your stories? What fantastic books have you almost passed up because of how they were marketed? What book confused you not because of the writing but because of the marketing? What book did you see vanish from the radar despite being a fantastic read because it was pushed in such a way to attract the wrong readers?


Deirdre said...

Well, in exactly the opposite of what you're looking for...I keep on picking up the RedWall books because the cover draws me in, and the quotes make it sound like a good read. I really dislike the RedWall books, I've now tried to read them three or four times, and I always put them down in short order...but the covers! C'est la vie.

Margaret said...

Actually, it's the same thought though. Where marketing sets up an expectation that the books do not fulfill. How frustrating.

Maripat said...

Actually, I got hood winked into reading The Giver because everyone said it was beautiful, fantastic, the best read and I didn't care for it. There's been a few others I've stopped reading because they just didn't sit well with me but that's the one that really got me.

Linda said...

Interesting, Maripat. I think it always boils down to a matter of taste. My son managed to use The Giver for book reports for about four different teachers when he was in school. It was his favorite book. I liked it a lot, except for the ending. I don't like ambiguous endings, for the most part. :)

Maripat said...

Grin-oh, yeah. Oddly enough I can't get into her books and I'm not sure why. I also read "A Summer to Die," I think that's the title. It might be just her writing style. As for the ending, I agree. She was even asked about it at the Newbury awards and she gave an ambiguous answer there as well.

Jennifer said...

What I've seen a lot is reissues of books with the latest style covers - and to me, they're very offputting. For instance, Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series - it's only a few years old, and the original covers were cartoony (simple lines, few colors) images that, to me at least, reflected well what was in the book. The reissues have blurry photographs of faces, on dark backgrounds - and they don't appeal at all. Similarly Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liaden series. Nowadays I don't look at the cover at all, because usually I dislike it. I go by the cover blurbs and the inside extract, and frequently open the book and start reading to see if I'll be interested.