Why do audio publishers employ inexperienced narrators to work on major releases by big-name authors? I know everyone has to start somewhere, which is why I make a point of picking up audios using first time – or very early-in-their-careers – narrators; there have to be some who start out fairly well and then get better over time. Sadly, however, most of the newbies I have listened to recently have turned out to be fairly poor and have not done justice to the stories to which they have been assigned. Giving this book to an untried narrator is akin to giving the kid next door the lead role in Hamlet at the RSC. A Strange Scottish Shore is another title that’s being consigned to the “wish they hadn’t done that” pile, because while Gemma Massot has an attractive speaking voice, she lacks the experience and acting chops necessary to perform a tale of such complexity and bring it to life.
A Strange Scottish Shore is the second book in Juliana Gray’s quirky series of Edwardian era historical mysteries (with an unusual twist) featuring the intrepid Miss Emmeline Truelove and the dashing but enigmatic Marquess of Silverton. When I picked up the first book (A Most Extraordinary Pursuit – and it would be wise to read or listen to that before starting this one) I was expecting a straightforward historical mystery, but quickly had to adjust my expectations when our heroine began routinely having conversations with the deceased Queen Victoria and, later on, her late father. Miss Truelove, who had been secretary to the political colossus that was the Duke of Olympia up until his death, was asked to travel to the Greek islands in order to track down the new duke, who had gone missing, in the company of the unspeakably gorgeous but empty-headed Lord Silverton. Silverton, naturally, turned out to be far from stupid (he’s an early 20th century James Bond!) and what followed was an intriguing and thoroughly entertaining story that combined elements of mystery, mythology and time travel with a soupçon of romance and turned out to be unlike anything else I’ve read in the genre and left me eager for more.
This second book picks up some five months after the events of the previous one, which saw Silverton and Truelove parting on the island of Skyros after she had turned down his proposal of marriage. Ever the pragmatist, Truelove couldn’t conceive that a man of such high rank and extravagant good looks could possibly have been serious and viewed his offer as merely the sort of ridiculous flirting that characterised their relationship. Now, Truelove is running The Haywood Institute for the Study of Time that Max Haywood – the new Duke of Olympia – set up on his return from Greece. Max is an archaeologist of some renown whose specialism is Historical Anachronism; the study of artefacts unearthed in strata in which they clearly do not belong. He is currently attending a hunting party being held in the north of Scotland by Lord Thurso, and has requested Truelove join him in order to examine an unusual item he has discovered there. She is boarding the train in London when she glimpses a familiar face and shock of red hair; one of the men who had followed her and Silverton to Greece and caused them such trouble. Truelove suspects he is out to purloin the documents she is carrying to Max, but is distracted by the unexpected appearance of none other than Lord Silverton, charming and handsome as ever, who explains he’s received a telegram from Max asking him to meet him at the house-party.
When the red-haired man hurries past their compartment, Silverton sets off in pursuit, but he loses him when his quarry jumps from the train which is then forced to stop, delaying his and Truelove’s arrival and forcing them to spend the night in Edinburgh. When, next morning, Truelove discovers that Silverton has gone on without her and that the portfolio she had been taking to Max has also disappeared, she is annoyed and hurt at Silverton’s betrayal. But when she arrives and discovers that Max hasn’t heard from Silverton since he summoned him to Scotland, she is troubled and starts to wonder if perhaps his disappearance wasn’t a voluntary one.
As her concern grows, she is also intrigued to learn of Max’s discovery, which is of a suit of unknown material that seems to have been made to fit an adult female. Their host explains that it’s a selkie suit and tells of the family legend of the selkie who fell in love with a fisherman who so loved her that he hid her sealskin suit so that she couldn’t return to the sea. They lived together for seven years and she bore him two children, until she found the suit and left, never to return. Although this particular story – parts of which preface each chapter – is the author’s creation, such legends abound in the north of Scotland and there are many different versions of it. And keen eared listeners will be able to work out how it relates to the main storyline and what it portends for the next book.
When the dowager Duchess of Olympia telegraphs Max to tell him she hasn’t heard from Silverton recently, Truelove is forced to confront the truth of her feelings for him, which run far deeper than she has admitted to herself. But where is he? And how is she ever going to find him? It’s only when, in a room at a dilapidated castle on the island of Hoy (in the Orkneys) she gets an inkling of the truth, and asks herself if “where?” is the right question to ask.
I can’t say much more for fear of spoiling a complex, creative and engrossing plot which sees Truelove making a potentially life-changing sacrifice for the man she loves. The cleverly interwoven selkie myth, the danger posed by the mysterious red-haired man, the mystery surrounding Silverton’s disappearance, Max’s unusual talent… it all adds up to a cracker of a story.
But I’ll say now that it’s a book best experienced in print, because the narration by newcomer Gemma Massot doesn’t even begin to do it justice. Her voice is pleasant, and she injects a reasonable degree of expression into the narration, but her pacing is on the slow side and her character and gender differentiation is fairly negligible. Oh, and she gives Silverton a sex-change; he’s a marquess but she pronounces it as ‘marquise’. There are times in the opening chapters where I couldn’t tell the difference between Truelove’s dialogue and Silverton’s, and the sexual tension that arises from their banter-filled exchanges is completely lacking. Truelove’s narrative voice (the story is told in the first person) doesn’t capture her intelligence, her independence and slight but endearing starchiness and Silverton, oh, dear; gorgeous, clever, charming and slightly naughty Silverton sounds like a dry stick. I don’t want to give spoilers about the story, but it’s impossible not to give away a teeny bit when I say that in the latter part of the book after the couple is reunited, Ms. Massot has, for some inexplicable reason, chosen to give Silverton a bog-standard, country-bumpkin sort of West Country accent, which might have worked had that part of the story taken place in Cornwall, but it doesn’t – it takes place in the Orkney Islands. The text does indicate that Silverton’s accent at this point is different to the one Truelove is used to, but it’s from the wrong end of the UK. And if that weren’t bad enough, she doesn’t even apply it consistently. This is also the case with the American accent used for the character of Hunter; it’s inconsistent and often bleeds over into the following narrative and bits of dialogue. Then there are little things which, over the length of an audiobook, become major irritants, such as her odd way of pronouncing the word “the” and the way that half the words that should end with a ‘t’ end with a glottal stop.
I could say more, but I think I’ve made it clear why Ms. Massot was a poor choice for this book. It’s the sort of story that needs one to focus and pay attention, and when the narrator is not up to the story’s weight and the narration is this distracting, that just isn’t possible.
Note: I have given the same content grade as I gave the book; I didn’t feel able to make an accurate judgement of it in audio given that the narration didn’t hold my attention.
Book Content: A-
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in (but at the very tame end)
Violence Rating: Fighting
Genre: Historical Romance/Mystery with supernatural elements
Publisher: Penguin Audio
A Strange Scottish Short was provided to AudioGals by Penguin Audio for a review.