Since “Backlist” is pretty much what the TBR Challenge is all about, this month felt completely wide open for both of us. In the end, while we chose different subgenres, we both went with similar strategies. We each picked a backlist book by an autobuy author and as it turns out, we had somewhat similar results in terms of grading. So, who’s on your backlist?
Delicious by Sherry Thomas
It’s no secret around here that I’m a massive Sherry Thomas fangirl. I’ve read almost every one of her books, and when it came to this month’s TBR prompt of Backlist, I decided to read one of the two (I think) historical romances of hers I haven’t yet read – Delicious, from 2008. Billed as a kind of Cinderella story, it features a celebrated – even notorious – cook and a highly-respected MP who reunite after they spent a night together ten years earlier, but though I like second-chance romances and I love Sherry Thomas’ writing, the story didn’t work for me at all. In fact, it was just plain… odd.
I’ll admit to being a bit confused through the first few chapters, but one thing that is apparent early on is that gourmet chef/cook Verity Durant is not exactly what she seems. Notorious throughout English society because of her (supposed) loose morals, she was the mistress of her employer Bertie Somerset for a time, although that relationship ended ten years before and she remained at Fairleigh Park as his cook. Bertie dies at the beginning of the book, and his estate is inherited by his estranged half-brother Stuart, a hard-working lawyer and up-and-coming politician who is tipped as a future Prime Minister. And the man with whom Verity shared one single night of passion ten years earlier.
Verity has mixed feelings upon learning that Stuart will be coming back into her life. She knows there is little reason for them to meet but is still in love with him even after all that time, and she wants to give him a gift, one she realises has been ten years in the making – happiness on a plate.
But unlike his half-brother, who was a real foodie, for Stuart, food is a necessity, something to fuel his body and to prevent hunger. All he wants is to eat his first dinner as the owner of Fairleigh Park in peace and quiet while he reads his newspaper. But from his very first mouthful of soup, he’s distracted:
The sip turned into an explosion of flavors on his tongue, rich, deep, pure, like eating the sunshine and verdure of a fine June afternoon. Startled, he did something he almost never did – putting down his newspaper when he dined alone – and stared into the soup.
A mouthful later, he’s sent the soup away, seeing his enjoyment of it as an indulgence and a weakness. But as the days pass, he finds himself unable to stop thinking about Madame Durant, fantasising about her even though at this point, he (thinks) he has never even met her. Oh, and he’s just become engaged to a young woman with whom he’s been friends for a number of years and who he believes will make a good political wife.
But basically, that’s the story, Stuart fighting against seduction by proxy – the proxy being Verity’s amazing and incredibly culinary creations – while Verity simultaneously wants him to love her and actively avoids letting him see her and realise who she is.
The author makes good use of flashbacks to fill in the backstory, so we get to witness the first meeting between Verity and Stuart, the circumstances of their night together and what happened afterwards. But – and here is one of the book’s biggest problems – it was just ONE night, and the entire romance in the present is predicated on that single encounter. It’s intensely passionate to be sure, but it’s basically insta-love, and when you add to that the fact that Verity and Stuart don’t really interact all that much in the present timeline (and when they do, they don’t see each other’s faces until right at the end), well, I found their romance really difficult to buy into.
Another problem is with the way the conflict in the romance is resolved. Stuart’s fiancée is happily taken care of (there’s an excellent secondary romance which I liked more than the main one), but even then, Verity’s reputation will spell the end of Stuart’s political career, unless … well, a secondary character does a complete volte face and turns into a deus ex machina.
I didn’t connect with either Stuart or Verity. Hints are dropped early on that Verity was born into an aristocratic family but was estranged from them at sixteen; she’s had a tough time of it and the fact she’s made something of herself in the face of such adversity really is admirable, but I just couldn’t become invested in her. And I’m not sure how I feel about the fact she slept with brothers. (Okay, half-brothers, but still…) As for Stuart… two hours after finishing the book I’m trying to recall something about his personality, but other than his determination not to enjoy Verity’s cooking, and an obsession with her that springs out of nowhere, I can’t remember much. And speaking of cooking, I really didn’t care for was the way in which the food was described as magical and life-altering and… so much hyperbole that I started skimming those parts.
I did like the secondary romance, which was funny and tender, and I think my favourite parts of the story were those when Stuart began to reappraise his relationship with Bertie, to whom he’d been really close when they were boys. But it’s a bad sign when, in a romance novel, the love stories that are the most interesting don’t involve either of the two principal characters.
A C grade is the best I can do for Delicious – and I can’t remember the last time a Sherry Thomas book got anything lower than an A grade from me. It’s always a sad day when I have to write a negative review of a favourite author, but I’ll just have to chalk this one up to experience and move on.
Grade: C Sensuality: Warm
~ Caz Owens
Buy it at: Amazon
Tempted by the Badge by Deborah Fletcher Mello
Deborah Fletcher Mello is an autobuy author for me, so when I saw “backlist” as my prompt, I went searching in my box o’ Harlequins. This book isn’t too far down the backlist, having come out in 2019, but since I’m already a little bit behind on this romantic suspense series, I pulled out Tempted by the Badge. The first book in this series, Seduced by the Badge, was a winner for me, but this book was a little harder for me to assess.
On the positive side, the author takes on a very disturbing topic and handles it in a way that underscored its gravity. Dedicated teacher Joanna Barnes stands accused of having an affair with a student in her high school. As one would expect, she immediately loses her position at school and finds herself dealing with the conditions of her bond. The workings of the criminal justice system aren’t particularly glamorized here; Joanna really is facing many people’s worst nightmare.
The one thing she does have going for her is her friendship with one of the daughters in the Black family. The Blacks are a prominent family in Chicago law enforcement circles, with detectives, lawyers and even a judge among their ranks. Because of this connection, Joanna has access to a capable criminal defense attorney and Mingus Black, a former policeman turned private investigator, is working on her case to try to prove her innocence.
I appreciated that the investigation into Joanna’s case started off like many such investigations do – full of setbacks. Joanna sounds believable when protesting her innocence, but the state has a case that is far from an obvious setup. Mingus has some real work to do and that side of the story worked, at least at first.
The building tension between Mingus and Joanna worked well also. The two do not get together right away, and given the nature of the story, this is a good choice on the author’s part. There is plenty of tension and the slower burn of the romance matches the suspense plot well.
So, why did I have trouble assessing this book? Well, for starters, the author tries a bit too hard to make Mingus the family bad boy. If you like to roll your eyes at cop shows having the obligatory strip club scene, you will really get going with this book because yes, Mingus likes to hang out in a strip club. There are also visits to a particularly seedy tattoo parlor and some other similar goings on as well.
However, my biggest problem in this book came from the depiction of police work in the second half of the story. Mingus works hard on his case, but some of his breakthroughs occur because of what many readers would term “soft corruption.” No one is taking bribes or planting evidence here, but we definitely see police officers doing favors for a buddy, and that sort of thing. There is also some rough treatment of a suspect and, given current events, that sat especially wrong with me. The use of brutality by police (or private investigators) in their investigations is something that I just cannot condone. Self-defense is one thing but beating information out of someone is quite another.
In the end, this book was something of a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed parts of it, particularly in the first half but where there were missteps, they were large enough to be genuinely disturbing for me as a reader. In the end, I think I’ll split the difference and give this one a C. I still enjoy this author’s voice but this is not the book I’d recommend for new readers to start.
Grade: C Sensuality: Warm
~ Lynn Spencer