Sophia’s Secret (aka The Winter Sea) by Susanna Kearsley, narrated by Carolyn Bonnyman

a284Why I read listened to it: I’ve become a Susanna Kearsley fan and when I had a choice of reading The Iron Duke (Meljean Brook) or Sophia’s Secret (both of which I have in print) I decided to “read” both at once and downloaded the audiobook from Audible.
When this book was released in the US it was renamed The Winter Sea and the US audiobook release won narrator Rosalyn Landor an audie award this year.  I’m not a huge fan of Landor audie or not, so I went with the Bonnyman option – she narrated Mariana and I enjoyed her narration very much so I chose this version which, apart from the title, is exactly the same.
What it’s about: Carrie McClelland is a successful historical fiction writer. She is writing a novel about the Jacobite rebellion of 1708 and travels to Scotland to attend the christening of her agent and BFF’s child.  While there, she visits the ruins of Slains Castle, where The Dowager Countess of Erroll and her son the Earl of Erroll lived during that time, they both having great influence and involvement in the rebellion.  Her book hasn’t been coming together and she decides to relocate to Cruden Bay, near Slains and start again, with a “point of view” character.  That person is not supposed to be real, but rather someone who can “link the scenes together by her presence”.  When Carrie gives this character the name Sophia Paterson after one of her ancestors, she thinks it is a deliberate, conscious choice. She also thinks the ideas about her book, which are coming thick and fast now, are subconscious.  She’s wrong on both counts.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  This is a book within a book.  We get Sophia’s story and Carrie’s as she writes about Sophia. It is also a dual romance book.  Both Sophia and Carrie fall in love and have (mostly) happy endings.The romance for Carrie comes from the son of her landlord (she’s renting a cottage in Cruden Bay), a professor of history at the Aberdeen University, Graham Keith.  Graham’s younger brother Stuart also has an eye for Carrie but it is clear early on that the spark is between Graham and Carrie.  Stuart is charming but somewhat flighty and not terribly serious in his affections and they actually have little in common.  (He put me in mind of a (quite a bit) nicer version of Adrian Sutton-Clark from The Shadowy Horses actually).   There is little that keeps Carrie and Graham apart – Stuart is not a serious barrier.  I did think that not making things clear to Stuart was more of a plot point rather than organic – in other words, I think it wasn’t made explicit to Stuart much earlier on that he was out of luck to serve the purposes of the book only.Sophia has the more dramatic and angsty storyline and because of that, the easier relationship with Carrie and Graham was a welcome change.

Sophia is an orphan of about 18 years at the start of the book.  She travels from her home in Kirkcudbright (pronounced “Kerr-COO-bree”) in the west, to Slains Castle to live with her distant relative, the Countess of Erroll.  She is treated there like a daughter of the house.  Sent from the court of the exiled James Stewart at Saint-Germain in France, Nathanial Hooke and John Moray travel to Slains, the plan being that they will travel Scotland and gauge support for James.  John however has a price on his head of 500 pounds – an enormous amount of money for that time and he is confined to the castle for his protection.  John and Sophia are drawn to one another and commence a clandestine relationship – they know that the Countess would not encourage their relationship because John is a wanted criminal.    When John returns to France to assist with preparations for the rebellion and to fight with his regiment in Flanders against the English, it is with the promise to Sophia that he will return with King James and they can then be together forever.  The rebellion fails (as we know from history) and things get pretty bleak for Sophia for a good long while.  There is sadness and a difficult decision but never fear, Sophia does end up happy. Trust me.

I did wonder if John wasn’t being very selfish in having a relationship with Sophia in such desperate times.   They did a lot more than hold hands if you know what I mean – and this put Sophia at risk in terms of her future if something should happen to John (what if there were a child, she was no longer a virgin, etc) and also because she could easily be used as a pawn against John if it were ever discovered what she means to him.

The reasons for their secrecy were compelling and made sense.  As do the events at the end of the book (about which I will say no more).

I really think I’ve listened to Ms. Kearsley’s books in the right order.  Each book so far has, for me, gotten better – and by better, I really mean more romantic.    There is plenty for a romance lover in this book.  Add to that the beautiful prose and the rich historical setting – well, it’s a gem.

What else? Carolyn Bonnyman’s narration is excellent.  Portions of the conversation are written in the Doric – the local language which was fun to listen to (I would have had no hope of pronouncing things so well), as well as Scottish, English and Canadian accents, all well differentiated.    The scenes from Carrie’s time were clear because she used Carrie’s Cannadian accent to narrate and when we were in Sophia’s time, the narration had a Scottish accent to it, even though that part of the story is told in third person.  I knew where I was in time at each point because of it and it heightened the listening experience.

Grade: A

Why fade to black doesn’t work for me. Except when it does.

I finished Susanna Kearsley’s The Shadowy Horses a few days ago and I started thinking about “fade to black” or “bedroom door closed” books.  As a generality, I prefer my fictional bedroom doors wide open and the lights left on.  But I started to wonder why that was – and why some books which do fade to black work really well for me.  And here’s what I came up with.

I think there are two aspects at play during a sex scene in a romance (as opposed to erotica) – there is (often) something physically arousing about it and there is something I’m going to call, emotionally arousing.  I can’t say I’m immune to the physical “symptoms” of a well written sex scene but for me, the bigger payoff is in the emotionality.  I think very often the sex scene creates a “shortcut” to the emotional arousal I’m seeking – the heightened emotions which are often present being key here.
Fade to black books, with only kisses (and few kisses) do not usually give me the emotional arousal I’m seeking when reading romance.  What causes this emotional arousal?  Well, it can be kissing or handholding, the hand on the small of her back as they walk, her hand in his (or his in his for that matter).  It might be internal dialogue or conversation (conversation is the better of the two) where the couple’s emotional connection resonates (“When the day shall come that we do part,” he said softly, and turned to look at me, “if my last words are not ‘I love you’-ye’ll ken it was because I didna have time.”  Jamie to Claire in The Fiery Cross – although The Fiery Cross is in no way a fade to black book of course.).  In a sex scene it can be the desperation of one to physically connect to the other, the primal claiming of “mine”, a more tender or reverent loving after a crisis perhaps, the delight one partner takes in the body of the other, the care taken in ensuring his/her satisfaction – the physical display of the emotional connection.
I read the gamut from fairly tame to the erotic.  Susanna Kearsley’s books are on the “fairly tame” end of the scale.  I’ve read (well, listened to) 3 of her books at the time of writing this post and in each book, the emotional payoff for me has improved.  The Rose Garden was the first I read – I enjoyed it quite a bit but I thought that the romantic relationship was a bit rushed and underdeveloped – in other words, there was not enough of that emotional arousal I’m seeking.  In Mariana, there was more, but it was mostly toward the end of the book.  In The Shadowy Horses, the romantic aspects began early in the book and I found it much more satisfying.  (There are other reasons I read.  I have come to be a big fan of Ms. Kearsley’s books and nothing here is intended as criticism of her writing style as such – it is more that I’m exploring my reactions to it and why.  Susanna Kearsley writes beautiful lyrical prose usually with detailed (but never boring) historical information which fascinates me.  Frankly, I don’t think explicit love scenes would fit within the books she writes – so I’m not asking her to start writing them.)In thinking about The Shadowy Horses in particular, I pondered why that book held more emotional resonance for me than the earlier ones.  They are all pretty much fade to black – certainly not explicit.  But in The Shadowy Horses in particular there was a satisfying amount of touching, kissing, longing, even a bit of desperate clinging to one another – which caused my emotional arousal to spike in that satisfying “red zone”.  The zone where my heart rate speeds, there’s a little “zing” in the pit of my stomach and my romantic heart sighs a little.    Where a book can fade to black or be less than explicit but still give me the emotional climax I’m after, I tend to enjoy it.  Where it is lacking, I do not.
Sean Kennedy’s excellent Tigers and Devils is a m/m romance between a closeted gay AFL (Australian rules) football player and an out and proud gay man set in Melbourne.  It is not in the least explicit –  but emotionally, I found it entirely satisfying.  There was plenty of affection – verbal and physical and the emotional payoff level was very high.
I said in my recent review of Katie McGarry’s Pushing The Limits that the is no consummation of Noah and Echo’s physical relationship.  There are no explicit scenes.  There is plenty of making out and of Noah respecting Echo’s boundaries no matter how much he desires her.  The reader sees his desire in his physical interactions with her and also in his speech and thoughts.  This is another book where I found my emotional arousal satisfied.
Kristan Higgins’ Catch of the Day is a book where this didn’t occur.  I enjoyed the book but there was nowhere near enough of the emotional payoff for me.  As a comedic contemporary fiction piece it worked very well.  But as a romance?  Not so much.  There is barely any of the hero, Malone.  He hardly speaks and, as the book is told in the first person POV of the heroine, we don’t know what’s going on in his head either.  For much of the book, the couple aren’t together so there isn’t the physical affection, loving looks or courting conversation that I look for.  (Others of Ms. Higgins books have worked much better for me as romances however.)
On the other hand, Shannon McKenna writes very steamy explicit books.  They are like crack to me.  The plots are generally over the top and the villians pretty one dimensional  and super-eeeevil but the heroes are devoted to their heroines and their devotion leaps out of the page.  The sex scenes in a McKenna novel can be physically arousing as well, but the emotional payoff comes from the hero’s total devotion, his admiration of her beauty, even, strangely, how he gets hard and stays hard for hours and hours because SHE turns him on so much.   Lisa Marie Rice books have the same kind of thing.
KA Mitchell writes m/m romance.  The sex is explicit and frequent.  But, the sex serves the emotional story arc. The characters develop and deepen their emotional connection through physical intimacy.  It’s just hotter. (oh, boy, is it).  But it is as emotionally satisfying to me to read a KA Mitchell book as a Sean Kennedy.
In Cara McKenna’s Curio, Caroly and Didier bond almost entirely through sex.   But the emotions conveyed in those encounters warm the cockles of this little romance reader’s heart.
In some ways, I think books containing more explicit sex scenes more easily satisfy my emotional arousal requirements – I’m looking for evidence they can’t live without each other (or at least, don’t want to).    In a romance novel where the couple don’t spend much time together, I’m unlikely to get that emotional payoff unless there’s some explicit sex (where I might get a big punch of it – which *might* satisfy).  The fade to black books which have worked for me are generally ones where the main characters are frequently in each other’s company and there is plenty of (taken) opportunity for the author to show me the developing emotional connection between them.  Another factor which usually weighs in is the length of the book (- how much time to I have to reach my peak? :D).  In the examples I’ve mentioned here the bedroom door closed books are long – over 400 pages, which means there is more time for the emotional punch to develop.In many of the tamer romances I’ve read, there isn’t enough of that emotional connection for me and the book therefore fails to satisfy as a romance.  I have not come across all that many fade to black books which do satisfy me but the ones that do, do so because they are able to convey that emotional connection in other ways and frequently enough in the course of the book that I’m able to reach “emotional climax”.

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley, narrated by Sally Armstrong

the-shadowy-horsesWhy I read listened to it: I’m up to date on my review audiobooks for AAR so I got to pick one from my own stash.   I really enjoyed Mariana and The Rose Garden and the excerpt on Audible intrigued.
What it’s about:  (from Goodreads)  The dark legends of the Scotland were an archaeologist dream. Verity Grey was thrilled to be at a dig for an ancient Roman camp in the Scottish village. But danger was in the air — in the icy reserve of archaeologist David Fortune. In the haunted eyes to the little boy who had visions of a slain Roman sentinel. And in the unearthly sound of the ghostly Shadowy Horses, who carried men away to the land of the dead…
What worked for me (and what didn’t): Okay, that blurb doesn’t really tell you much.  Verity Grey is a 29 year old archaeologist type who travels to Eyemouth in Scotland after hearing about a job opportunity from ex-boyfriend Adrian Sutton-Clark.  Adrian is a handsome devil but very immature when it comes to relationships.  Verity found they were much better as friends, and besides, he has a marked preference for blondes and she’s a brunette.  When she arrives in Eyemouth, she finds that the proposed dig is to be led by eccentric (some say mad) archaeologist, Peter Quinell, and supported by a sexy Scottish archeology professor from the local university, David Fortune.    Peter’s property, Rosehill is the site of the dig – he believes he will find there, evidence of the fate of the famous 9th Roman Legion.  The basis for his belief?  A 9 year old boy by the name of Robbie who has “second sight”. (I heard from the author that an adult Robbie features as the hero in her upcoming book).

The other Kearsley books I have listened to (my experience with this author has all be on audio) involve time travel of some sort.  This one doesn’t.  There is certainly a supernatural element to the story and it delves into some of this history of the town and of the Roman occupation, but it is set solidly in the present.    I also found it to be the most romantic book of Kearsley’s I’ve tried so far.  That’s a big call, because Mariana had some big romance – but most of that was about Mariana and Richard and they didn’t get your traditional HEA.  In this book, we see Verity and David slowly falling in love and yes, there is a traditional HEA.  The story is told from Verity’s first person POV but I felt I did get to know David.  It’s funny how just a few sentences can change your view of a person.  For the first part of the book David is friendly but guarded with Verity.  Later, Verity has a conversation with David’s mother (“Granny Nan”) and in one sentence, casts David’s actions in a new and very understandable (and sympathetic) light.  I love that.

Adrian was pretty much annoying.  He’s the guy who doesn’t want you but doesn’t want anyone else to have you either – so he makes sly comments that make people think there is more going on with he and Verity than there is and he puts his arm around her at strategic moments for the same reason.  All this when he’s got his eye firmly on Fabia, Peter Quinell’s beautiful 20 year old (and blonde) grand-daughter.  When Verity (finally!) puts Adrian in his place at the fish market, it was a thing of beauty.

The romance between David and Verity was a slow growing delight – the bedroom door is pretty much closed but there was definitely enough between them to satisfy my romantic soul and I totally believed in their HEA.

Robbie is a treasure and his mother Jeannie (the Rosehill housekeeper) and Granny Nan all add to a richly drawn cast of characters.The ghostly Sentinel who talks to Robbie in Latin, warns of a mysterious danger – and it comes from an unexpected source.  The fine threads were expertly woven together to make a wonderfully complex and engrossing story.  There were a few things at the end that I’m not 100% sure I understood but to go into them would be to head into spoiler territory so I won’t.  It didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the story, it was just that a couple of things right at the end could have used a little more exposition (at least for my brain to fully compute anyway.)

What else?  The narration is excellent.  I’ve not listened to Sally Armstrong narrate before and, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much on offer for me from Audible with her narrating, but I so wish there was.  She’s the sort of narrator where you’ll listen to a book just to hear her performance.  Her characters were all distinctly voiced, she has a wonderful Scottish brogue as well as the various British accents and her voice for young Robbie was just wonderful.    There were a couple of times in the narration where she obviously thought a sentence had finished and then realised it hadn’t but other than that, from a technical perspective, she nailed the tone of the novel and the characterisations.I loved the lessons in Scottish dialect – Verity carried with her a pocket dictionary to translate the words people spoke which she didn’t understand and I think that this came across much better on audio – with the correct pronunciations and timing etc – than it would have in print.  I’m a sucker for a good Scottish accent anyway and when you combine it with a sexy hero like David (who looks fantastic in a kilt) it’s just an added bonus.   

I loved it.

Grade:  A-

Mariana by Susanna Kearsley, narrated by Carolyn Bonnyman

Why I read it: I enjoyed The Rose Garden on audio recently and picked this one up on special from Audible.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  From the winner of the Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize, this mesmerizing, suspenseful, and richly atmospheric tale of time travel draws us into the heart of a heroine we won’t soon forget…The first time Julia Beckett saw Greywethers she was only five, but she knew at once that it was her house. Now, twenty-five years later, by some strange chance, she has just become the new owner of the sixteenth-century Wilshire farmhouse. But Julia soon begins to suspect that more than coincidence has brought her there. As if Greywethers were a portal between worlds, she finds herself abruptly transported back in time. Stepping into seventeenth-century England, Julia becomes Mariana, a beautiful young woman struggling against danger and treachery, and battling a forbidden love for Richard de Mornay, handsome forebear of the present squire of Crofton Hall. Each time Julia travels back, she becomes more enthralled with the past, falling ever deeper in love with Richard… until one day she realizes Mariana’s life threatens to eclipse her own–and that she must find a way to lay the past to rest, or risk losing a chance for love in her own time.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  The blurb above does a fairly good job of letting you know what the book is about without revealing any massive spoilers.  And there are some massive spoilers I will be avoiding – to know them early would truly spoil the impact of the book’s surprising ending.

Rather than being strictly a time-travel story, this one employs the device of reincarnation to explain events – well, mostly.  Julia Beckett, present day, is the reincarnation of Mariana Farr from 16th century Restoration England.    Once she moves into Greywethers, she starts experiencing strange episodes where she “becomes” Mariana, former Greywethers resident.  Mariana has no awareness of Julia however and, the physical actions (walking, moving from place to place) Mariana takes, Julia mimics in the present day – so if Mariana walks from Greywethers to the river, then Julia also takes that walk – which places her in some odd situations from time to time.

Mariana moves to the country after her mother dies of plague.  She lives with her Uncle Jabez Howard, a strict puritanical man and a supporter of Cromwell, his wife Caroline (and their baby son John) and her sister Rachel.   Mariana meets Richard De Mornay and is instantly fascinated by him.  But, she is warned by her uncle that Richard is a libertine and forbids her to have anything to do with him.  Because the story swings in and out of the 16th century, there book is episodic and there isn’t a lot of Richard.  The book is told from Julia/Mariana’s first person POV and that also restricts the reader’s knowledge of Richard.  The book is about 11 hours long and up until about the 8 or 9 hour mark, I couldn’t have told you whether Richard was toying with a girl from a lower social station or whether he he was deeply in love.  Fortunately for my romantic soul, there is enough in the latter stages of the book to satisfy me that Richard was on the side of the angels.
In the present day, Julia begins a relationship with the current lord of the manor, Geoffrey De Mornay and for much of the book, I admit to a certain frustration in the development of this relationship.    Julia believes that Geoff is the current incarnation of Richard but he has no memory of it (when she eventually tells him) and he poignantly asks her if when she looks at him, she sees Richard or Geoffrey.  He backs off to give her some space to work it out and is out of the picture for much of the last portion of the book.  While I understood that he needed to be away so that she could go off wandering in a present day trance in his house (while Julia was Mariana in the 16th century), it limited the development of their romance.  I had a feeling that the historical love story might not end on a happy note and I wanted the payoff in the present day.
Ms. Kearsley writes very much closed bedroom door.  There’s not a lot of kissing and certainly no actual sex scene. I found myself wondering how far Julia and Geoff had progressed physically – there was mention of a few kisses and some dates over a period of months and I wondered about this relationship which seemed, to me, to be on the tepid side for such a great love story.
Without giving anything (more?) away, I will say this.  The end section of the book, which totally surprised me, moved me and had my heart pounding has it all making sense.  And I was glad.
I could have wished for more interaction with Richard – it would have been nice to be certain of his genuine love for Mariana earlier in the piece and as I’m a hero-centric reader, I did feel the lack.
What else? Carolyn Bonnyman did a wonderful job of the narration.  Ian, a close friend of Geoff’s and a major secondary character in Julia’s daily life is from Scotland and her Scottish accent was just perfect.  As she is British and the story is set in England, her voice had that authenticity of accent which just adds to an audiobook experience.  She was able to differentiate the various accents of class but there wasn’t a lot of difference between the male and female voices and there were times I relied on the dialogue tags or wished there were more of them to make it clear who was speaking.  I could have wished for a deeper “hero” voice but otherwise, her narration was pitch perfect – in terms of the pace and tone and atmosphere of the story.
I do think 1st person books work especially well on audio – perhaps there will be a post in that one day – but I think it boils down to the illusion of the narrator in the story telling you the story (as opposed to a storyteller telling a story) and there is something intimate and special about that experience I think.
I have listened to 2 Susanna Kearsley books now and I think she writes beautiful, evocative stories with a clever mix of past and present.  While I don’t always understand the time travel/reincarnation thing, I’m fascinated by the idea of it and I think it makes for a great story.  I’m also a fan of the idea of epic love which crosses and outlasts time.  If I had my druthers, they’d have a little more of the hero and a little more heat (it doesn’t have to be erotic, but I would like some – or even a love scene) but so much else of her writing suits me so well, I feel sure that I’ll be reading and listening to many more of her books.

Grade:  B+

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