Long before I started Smart Bitches, before I started reading romances and taking notes and making lists of entries to write, I read a lot of romance because that was my favorite kind of book. I had an account at an online book-lending service called BooksFree, which wasn't free because I paid a subscription service fee but whatever. I couldn't get to the library on my work schedule at the time so BooksFree was awesome for me. I received two paperbacks at a time, read them and mailed them back, hoping to time my reading progress such that I wouldn't be Without a Book (better known as a Book Emergency) and have to go buy one. I was a grad student. Times were tight.

Did you read the last Smart Bitches at Kirkus?  

I recently looked at old e-mail records of my account at BooksFree to see what I'd borrowed and read. My queue was mostly romance, and funny enough, I had a lot of Nora Roberts books on there. This is odd because I thought I owned them all. I had trilogies, stand-alone romantic suspense (not my favorite subgenre), old Harlequin and Silhouette category romances in my reading queue, and according to my e-mail history, I had read them all.

Roberts’ novels were my vacation mainstays, the books I knew would not disappoint me, ever. They may not leave me with my eyes stinging and my heart twisted into emotional origami every single time, but I wouldn't close a book of hers and think, "What a waste." She's consistent in her strengths and strong in her consistency. And she's a megalopolis bestseller of hugely amazing longevity.

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It's rare to meet a romance reader who has spent some time in the genre who hasn't read or at least encountered a Roberts’ novel. Her list of published books is so unreal in its length, and there's something for just about any reader taste, too. If you like mystery, her JD Robb series is amazing. If you like paranormal romance, she has several trilogies, including the Keys trilogy, the Circle trilogy, and the Three Sisters Island trilogy. I call them the ParaNoras. If you like stories with entertaining families populated by strong characters (one thing I love like chocolate and ice cream), her latest Bride Quartet will probably appeal, as will my absolute hands down favorite of hers, the Chesapeake Bay quartet, which started as a trilogy but ended up with a fourth book. 

I just finished reading her latest book, Chasing Fire (Putnam, April 2011), about firefighters who specialize in fighting forest wildfires. I honestly hadn't expected to like it as much as I enjoy her other books. I am not, as a rule, a romantic-suspense fan, and I don't usually enjoy when the conflict is centered more on some antagonist outside the protagonists' relationship than on tension that exists inside or between them. Holy hell. I could not put this damn book down. The depth of research is stunning—even when I wasn't sure exactly what the characters were talking about when they spoke to one another, the language they used, the way they spoke to each other about the fires, the equipment and each other made me feel like I was listening in on unfiltered conversation within a real family—an adrenaline-fueled, high-risk-job-loving, firefighting family. I was late to appointments because I got lost in the book. I stayed up past midnight for two nights in a row trying to read one more chapter, one more page. I was absorbed in the world, and fascinated by it. If a scene between two characters didn't work for me, the setting did. If the plot gave me the creepy jeebies, the characters I liked kept me going.

That's one thing I love about her writing: she creates people as multidimensional as possible. As she said in a New Yorker profile (subscription only, but the abstract is enough), “Character is plot. Make them accessible to the reader.” I like her characters, most of the time. I love that so often her heroes are endearing and goofy, not hardened alpha males with dominant streaks of potential assholishness running through them. She's written graphic novel artist heroes, dork heroes, nerd heroes, skeptical investigator heroes and moody heroes who dislike people most of the time, up to and sometimes including the heroine. Her characters not only fall in love but also create a family for one another, which usually include other characters in the born or made-later family unit.

There were times when Chasing Fire scared the crap out of me—but I'm afraid of heights and of falling. I hate those stairs that don't have backs so you can see the floor behind each tread. They are staircases of hell for me. So imagine me reading about people regularly jumping out of airplanes parachuting into burning fires. I wasn't sure if this book would work for me, given that it was suspense, and there were people jumping out of planes several thousand feet in the air. I don't think it was perfection, as there were times when the characters would talk about themselves in far too erudite and self-aware a fashion, commenting on themselves and their own behavior repeatedly in a way that worked my nerves. And the head-hopping. She needs to trademark the head-hopping.

But based on the strength of the characters and the collection of distinct individuals who make up the book, I was hooked and couldn't stop reading. The strength of the whole kept me going further even when an individual scene didn't work for me. Her characters make the plot, and the plot highlights the complexity of the characters in the book. Roberts' consistency combined with her strength in characterization combine to create a truly impressive endurance—including the never-ending lineup of her novels still on my keeper shelf.

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.