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Review: Nocturne For a Widow by Amanda DeWees

Nocturne-for-a-Widow-Ebook

First off, how much do you love that cover for Nocturne For a Widow? I love the colors, the composition, and most of all that silhouette.

That gorgeous cover is not all  Nocturne For a Widow has to recommend it. If you missed my synopsis when Sweet Rocket did the cover reveal, here’s a taste of what you can expect inside:

Widowed on her wedding night!

Sybil Ingram is at a crossroads. Once she was the toast of the London stage, but by 1873 her draw isn’t what it used to be, and her theater troupe is foundering. When her trusted mentor asks her to take the blame for his financial misdeeds, Sybil sees no choice but to retire from the life she loves and move to America to marry New York City hotel magnate Alcott Lammle. But her path to happiness is cut short when Lammle dies suddenly–and in financial ruin.

Widowed, nearly penniless, and unable to return to England, the determined diva sets out to stake a claim on Brooke House, an eccentric Gothic revival manor in the wilds of the Hudson River Valley. She soon finds, however, that a ghostly presence wants her gone. Even worse, her claim is challenged by the most insolent, temperamental, maddeningly gorgeous man she’s ever met: Roderick Brooke, a once-famous former violinist whose career ended in a dark scandal.

Soon it’s a battle of wills as Sybil matches wits–and trades barbs–with Roderick, finding herself increasingly drawn to him despite her growing suspicion that there is a connection between him and the entity that haunts Brooke House. But an even greater threat arises in the form of the mysterious, powerful queen of local society, Mrs. Lavinia Dove. For reasons that Sybil can’t imagine, Mrs. Dove is determined to oust Sybil from her sphere . . . and the lengths to which she will go are chilling indeed.

By turns mysterious and moving, sparkling and spooky, Nocturne for a Widow follows a spirited heroine through adventures in life, love, and death. From the colorful theatrical world of late-Victorian London to the American wilderness, Sybil’s travels will test her mettle–and her heart.

As I was reading Nocturne For a Widow, two authors’ works kept coming to mind: Barbara Michaels’ historical Gothics, and Deanna Raybourne’s Lady Julia Gray mysteries. It’s hard to heap higher praise on an author than to compare her to either of those authors, both of whom weave important but too-often overlooked elements into their spooky tales — wit and humor. It’s a hard balance to strike, but like Raybourne and Michaels, Amanda DeWees does it wonderfully.

If you’ve found Gothic romances too cobwebby and suffocating, then DeWees’ books, especially Nocturne For a Widow, will disabuse you of those notions. A sprinkling of cheeky wit was but one of the standout features of DeWees’ Gothic historical debut, Sea of Secrets and her follow-up Gothic With This Curse  and with Nocturne For a Widow, she brings that delicious humor to the forefront, creating characters and a plot that balance classic Gothic suspense and lighthearted humor so deftly that she nearly creates an entirely new genre — the cozy Gothic romance.

We Gothic lovers are unused to heroines who are not the overlooked governess, the plain-but-bright orphan, or the tragic beauty, which is why Sybil Ingram is such a revelation. Beautiful, vivacious and ever-so-funny, Sybil makes the perfect foil for each and every pathos-laden situation DeWees throws her way, from marrying for money only to find herself widowed immediately to arriving at a desolate and clearly disturbed estate to dealing with unhinged would-be spiritualists. She’s never daunted, never cowers, and if Sybil blunders into that proverbial dark at the top of the stairs more than once, it’s never for being too clueless to know better. Our Sybil’s just that fearless and self-assured, two few-and-far-between qualities in the Gothic heroine.

It spoils nothing to reveal that Sybil goes to Brooke House expecting a pitifully neglected young stepson to go with the forgotten estate, only to find that her stepson is fully grown and anything but pitiful. That’s where our hero, Roderick makes his stomping, bellowing and unforgettable entrance. No Gothic romance is complete without a haunted hero, and Roderick Brooke is one you’ll remember long after you’ve put Nocturne down. Roderick is, in fact, where the Barbara Michaels connection comes to the fore; if you loved Michaels’ Master of Blacktower and its blustering, howling and yet endearingly vulnerable hero, Gavin Hamilton, then Roderick Brooke is just the hero for you. His and Sybil’s interactions crackle with chemistry, and theirs is a happy ending that you hope is just the beginning.

And is it just a beginning? If you paid close attention to Nocturne’s gorgeous cover, you couldn’t have missed “Sybil Ingram: Book One” at the very top. It’s my dearest hope that this is but our first adventure with Sybil and Roderick, and that we can look forward to more of their fabulous chemistry together to come.

I give Nocturne For a Widow five suitcases that just won’t stay where you leave them. I know you’ll just love it.

Nocturne-for-a-Widow-Ebook

Nocturne For a Widow by Amanda DeWees

Amazon Digital Services, Inc.: 2014

Available in ebook and paperback at Amazon

Looking for something to read when you finish Nocturne For a Widow? Try these, precious:

With This Curse by Amanda DeWees

A Bed of Thorns and Roses by Sondra Allen Carr


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Book Review: With This Curse by Amanda DeWees

There’s a curse at work here, all right. The kind that makes a book impossible to put down.

It’s no secret that I love a true Gothic romance better than almost any other romance genre, but the problem is finding new ones to read — discovering a well-written Gothic published since Gerald Ford was in office is almost impossible.

And then there was Amanda DeWees, who has, in the course of just two years, managed to publish not one but two wonderful Gothics. I considered the first, Sea of Secretsa revelation. Her latest, With This Curse, is even better.

Without further ado, here’s the synopsis, courtesy of DeWees’ website:

In 1854, seventeen-year-old chambermaid Clara Crofton was dismissed from Gravesend Hall for having fallen in love with Richard Blackwood, the younger son of the house. Alone in the world, Clara found a tenuous position as a seamstress, but she always blamed the Gravesend curse for the disaster that had befallen her—and for Richard’s death soon after in the Crimean War.

A proposal…

Now, more than eighteen years later, Richard’s twin, Atticus, seeks out Clara with a strange proposal: if she will marry him and live with him as his wife in name only to ease the mind of his dying father, Atticus will then endow her with a comfortable income for the rest of her life. Clara knows that he is not disclosing his true motives, but when she runs out of options for an independent life, she has no choice but to become Atticus’s wife.

A deception…

For Clara, returning to Gravesend as a bride brings some triumph… but also great unease. Not only must she pretend to be a wellborn lady and devoted wife to a man whose face is a constant reminder of the love she lost, but ominous portents whisper that her masquerade brings grave danger. “This house will take from you what you most treasure,” her mother once warned her. But the curse has already taken the man Clara loved. Will it now demand her life?

As I was reading With This Curse, I thought over and over of how Dean James of Mystery Scene summed up the death of the 1970s Gothic Revival:

A fair number of [1970s-era Gothics] featured dimwitted heroines who went into that proverbial dark room at the head of the stairs with no thought to the danger within, and if they had been murdered, well, it would have been little more than they deserved.

I thought of that observation not because Clara is dimwitted, but because it crystallized the secret to With This Curse’s success — making the danger Clara faces real.

Just as I raved of Oriel from Sea of Secrets, Clara is a rare worthy successor to that grandmother of all Gothic heroines, Jane Eyre. We still talk about and read Jane Eyre today because Charlotte Bronte created a heroine that didn’t blunder into the proverbial dark room with no thought to danger, but because she was pushed into it.  Every time she steps into the dark room — becoming a governess at a house with a bad reputation, marrying Rochester, running away from Rochester — it’s because of the limited choices available to her as an impoverished, unmarried woman. That’s the horror of Jane Eyre. 

That’s also why With This Curse works so well. The book is so well-grounded in the setting — mid-Victorian England — that it’s easy to understand why Clara, too, goes to the dark room by agreeing to marry Atticus and return to a house where she has known little but unhappiness. So few so-called historical romances truly make the reader understand the limitations women faced in less enlightened eras — probably because we wouldn’t read them if they did — that when these limitations are used to create real drama in the plot, it’s surprising and refreshing.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD

It’s not just Clara’s plight that DeWees employs to create the almost stifling sense of doom that pervades the book. DeWees ratchets up the mystery in the book by imbuing the commonplace with portent. DeWees proves that you don’t need mummies rattling chains to make a horror story — Victorian England is scary enough.

Women who stray from the straight and narrow come to terrible ends. Children are mistreated as a matter of course. The hero’s congenital physical imperfection is seen as a mark of a curse, as is an ancestor’s madness. Atticus’ cretin of a father, in keeping with the ghoulish-to-us Victorian obsession with mourning, collects death masks. Neither the mystery that’s at the heart of the story or the other weird happenings that create a spooky atmosphere are supernatural; rather, they are horrible for how natural they are, how easily they could happen during the Victorian era.   

Which is not to say that With This Curse is a joyless slog. As with any DeWees book, you are treated to beautifully written prose, excellent plotting and great characterization.

Clara is prickly, but in the best way possible, and like Jane Eyre, is witty and perfect in her imperfections. She’s a little older and wiser than most Gothic heroines, which makes her even more fun to read. Atticus quickly became one of my favorite Gothic heroes. He’s one of few heroes in the genre who is genuinely funny, kind and delightful, even as he struggles with the ghosts that haunt Gravesend Hall. Not Scooby Doo ghosts, mind you, but the real ghosts that haunt any home — memories and long-standing family dynamics that can stir up more trouble than a whole passel of the bedsheet variety of ghosts.

The romance that develops between Atticus and Clara is believable and touching; they complement each other so well, with Clara’s dryness the perfect foil to Atticus’ sweet vulnerability. They are both misfits, in their own ways, and it’s easy to see how these two are drawn together, and you are really rooting for their HEA.

I should end this review right here, but I can’t without mentioning Clara’s career as a seamstress for a famous stage actress. The brief foray we’re given into the Victorian theater world is fascinating, and for someone who could usually care less about suchlike stuff, the descriptions of the dresses are so engrossing — you owe it to yourself to visit DeWees’ Pinterest page to get an idea of Clara’s work.

I give With This Curse 5 out of 5 creepy death masks. Atticus gets 5 jaunty walking sticks, while Clara gets 5 dresses of her own design, sewn by someone else!

Enough of my yammering. Just read With This Curse already. But make sure you have several hours to kill, or don’t have anything to do tomorrow, because you won’t be able to put it down.

With This Curse

Amanda DeWees

Published 2014

Available at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And when you’re done, read Sea of Secrets if you haven’t already!


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The End of a Very Gothic Week – What Happened to the Gothic Revival?

Kathleen Woodiwiss’ “The Flame and the Flower” was one of the death knells for the Gothic Revival.

So, what happened to stem the tide of Gothic Romances that flooded the paperback marketplace from the mid-1960s through the 1970s? Why did Gothic Romance disappear from the romance/paperback market? Aren’t you a little bit curious?

We’ve spent this Very Gothic Week tracing the lineage of the Gothic Romance, considering how a 150 year-old vampire contributed to its explosive growth, and raving over a modern example that makes us long for the dark days of finding a great (or not so great) Gothic Romance in every drugstore, bookstore, whiskey store and library paperback shelf in America. As this Very Gothic Week concludes, it’s time to solve the mystery of the disappearance of the Gothic Romance.

By the mid-1970s, Gothics were everywhere. As we discovered in earlier posts, Gothics became so popular that several paperback publishers produced dedicated lines just for Gothics — so popular that one publisher even had a sub-Gothic Gothic line just for Satanic Gothics.

As with anything else, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and that’s part of what brought the big dark house down. Or, as Dean James of Mystery Scene writes:

As with any glut in the marketplace, there were many inferior products. A fair number of these books featured dimwitted heroines who went into that proverbial dark room at the head of the stairs with no thought to the danger within, and if they had been murdered, well, it would have been little more than they deserved. Unfortunately, the really good books in this genre got tarred with the pitch of the bad ones, and eventually the rubric “Gothic” became as much a term of derision as anything.

But ubiquity doesn’t explain the death of Gothics away (or, if it does, perhaps we’re nearing the end of the paranormal romance era, at least I hope we are).  The threats came from the outside, as well, and one of the biggest was the one in the picture above — the bodice-ripper.

To understand the effect that books like Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower and Shanna, and Judith McNaught’s Whitney, My Love had on audiences of the mid-1970s – early 1980s, one has to understand what romance novels to that point had lacked entirely: sex. Before The Flame and the Flower, Sweet Savage Love and other sexually explicit romance novels of the 1970s, the extent of the “romance” in a romance novel might be a chaste kiss on the lips. Heroes and heroines did not sleep in the same bed, nor did we see their bedrooms.

Compared to the explicit historical romances of the 1970s, Gothic Romances had begun to seem dated, stale. The chasm between bodice-rippers and Gothic Romances was one filled with irony — while historical romance was on the cusp of the sexual revolution, even most contemporary Gothic Romances were still wandering the dusty towers of a much more sexually repressed era. The fact that the quality of Gothic Romances had declined inverse to the quantity only made matters worse, and by the end of the decade, Gothics were disappearing from shelves.

Yet Gothics did not disappear altogether. During the 1980s, they were sublimated into category romances published by Harlequin, Silhouette, Zebra and others, appearing occasionally in the guise of a spooky historical novel or a contemporary marketed as romantic suspense. Anne Stuart and Jenna Ryan are two romance authors who regularly wrote category romances with overt or subtle Gothic influence, while Barbara Michaels, who’d written a number of Gothics just as the genre was fading from popularity, wrote single-title romances labeled romantic suspense that had much in common with her Gothics.

And for a brief period in the 1990s, Gothics made a mainstream reappearance, even if they weren’t marketed as such. Silhouette’s Shadows line, published from 1993 to 1996, was, according to the tagline, dedicated to “the dark side of love.” As such, the line featured books with paranormal and suspense themes that were much darker (and often more violent) than books published under the imprint’s other lines.

A number of the Shadows books were Gothics updated for a modern audience — i.e., they featured sex or sexual situations. Among the Gothics published under the Shadows imprint were Carla Cassidy’s Silent Screams,   Sandra Dark’s Sleeping Tigers, Patricia Simpson’s The Haunting of Briar Rose, and Lori Herter’s The Willow File.  The woman running from a scary house theme was also employed on some occasions, as evidenced by the cover shown above. As though the women-running-from-houses cover art wasn’t throwback enough, the Shadows line published books by two authors who’d published Gothics during the genre’s glory days, Anne Stuart and Jane Toombs.

Like the Gothics published during the 1960s-1970s, the quality of the Shadows books varied wildly. The line published at least one bonafide classic, Anne Stuart’s Break the Night, but few of the Gothics were high quality. At some point in the late 1990s-early 2000s, the line was resurrected as Silhouette Dreamscapes; many of the books that had been published under the Shadows line were republished under the Dreamscapes line, along with new books, most with a paranormal theme.  The quality, alas, had not improved with the imprint re-title.

If history is any indication, we’re due another Gothic revival any day now. As for me, it can’t get here quickly enough!


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A Very Gothic Week — Profile of Amanda DeWees, author of Sea of Secrets

It’s still a very Gothic week here at ye olde Sweet Rocket, but here’s a super sweet Sunday post — a profile of author Amanda DeWees, whose great new Gothic novel, Sea of Secrets, started the whole Gothic thing here earlier this week.

Author Amanda DeWees

By all rights, the author of a great Gothic novel should be dark and brooding, icy and forbidding. Fortunately, Amanda DeWees, author of Sea of Secrets, a wonderful new Gothic in the tradition of classics like Jane Eyre and Rebecca, is none of the above.

When I discovered Sea of Secrets, I found the book so compelling and exciting that I had to contact DeWees personally and let her know how much I’d enjoyed the book. A few mouse clicks later, I’d convinced her to let me profile her for Sweet Rocket.

I couldn’t wait to ask DeWees what compelled her to write a Gothic novel, at a time when quality Gothic romances are as rare as hen’s teeth in the romance market — or the exploding e-book market, for that matter. Turns out that DeWees, like me, had come to love Gothic romance long after the genre’s 1960s-1970s renaissance was long past, and likewise lamented the lack of Gothic romances on the market.

“I must confess that I wrote Sea of Secrets primarily for my own pleasure and only secondarily for publication, so I wasn’t trying to conform to the demands of the market,” says DeWees.

However, when she did decide to publish Sea of Secrets, even the book’s riveting story and accomplished prose was not enough to guarantee it a place in a romance market set on ignoring Gothic romance.

“When I first started submitting Sea of Secrets—and this feels like writing about another era of history, which in a sense it was—the place to start was the annual Writer’s Market,” DeWees recalled. “Well, out of the probably several thousand publishers listed there, maybe three listed Gothic romance as a genre they would accept. Literally, about three. I had absolutely missed that boat. “

By 2012, the explosive growth of e-readers and e-books gave Sea of Secrets a chance that traditional publishers would not.

“It had to wait until the e-publishing revolution to enter the world,” DeWees says. “When I began contemplating e-publishing, I knew at once that this was the manuscript of mine that most deserved a chance to find an audience. It’s the one I was proudest of and the one closest to my heart.”

Traditional Gothic novels rely on first person narrators to spin their tales of horror, and Sea of Secrets is no exception. The whole of a novel in written in first person depends upon the author’s ability to create a character that is both relatable and reliable, which is no mean feat, but add to it the constricted language and mores of a Victorian setting, and the challenge grows. It’s a feat, however, that DeWees accomplishes with unusual success.

In Oriel, the novel’s heroine/narrator, DeWees has created a memorable character whose wry humor and kindness recalls none other so much as that Gothic romance heroine for the ages, Jane Eyre herself.

Of Oriel, DeWees says, “Writing her was mainly a matter of trusting my instincts–and years of studying Victorian literature in grad school, which gave me a good education in what would and wouldn’t fly in her world. Her sense of humor… I think that’s part of what makes her relatable. Also, she’s confronting situations that are timeless: falling in love, experiencing loss, finding out who she is. Universal emotional themes like that, I believe, are why romances continue to speak to us so strongly.”

DeWees’ background in literature did more than just inform Oriel’s character. Sea of Secrets is full of literary references that serve to both steep it in the Victorian era and deepen the story, as well.

“Many of the literary references were deliberate and planned in advance,” DeWees explains. “Several, in fact, were central to the development of the story. Others just felt like they belonged to Oriel’s landscape, especially since I had decided that she would be unusually widely read for a young woman of her position and era. In one scene she finds a copy of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, and that was a little inside joke about the antecedents of the Gothic romance.”

The very literary influences that appear in the novel helped make Sea of Secrets a Gothic novel. In it’s first incarnation, DeWees says, Sea of Secrets was, in fact, a romance novel. “Sea of Secrets started out as something very different from what it is now (but) the romance was always central to the story.” At some point during the novel’s writing, however, DeWees says it became clear that Sea of Secrets needed to be a Gothic.

“A lot of different factors contributed to the evolution of the story: advice from an editor, life (and love) experience, my studies in 19th-century Gothic literature … and of course my love for Gothic romances. “

Sea of Secrets’ transformation from romance to Gothic meant employing the intricate plotting that is essential to bringing all of the elements of a traditional Gothic romances together. This intricate plotting was not always easy, says DeWees.

“I have so much admiration for good plotting. I’ve always found it a challenge to create layered plots. It’s one of the areas I work hardest on when I’m outlining a story. One of my favorite writers (but about the least Gothic there is) is P.G. Wodehouse, and he was practically supernatural in his ability to create intricate, escalating plots.”

P.G. Wodehouse

An unlikely influence.

Wodehouse is one of many authors DeWees counts as an influence. Not surprisingly, Gothic authors and novels are also important references for her work, says DeWees, who says that classic Gothic novels like Jane Eyre and Lady Audley’s Secret, and authors who often wrote in the genre, Shirley Jackson and Joan Aiken, are a few of her favorites.

But her favorites and influences are more diverse than just the classics. Along with A.S. Byatt (Possession is a particular favorite of DeWees’), Ellis Peters, John Harwood, F.G. Cottam and Lemony Snicket, DeWees also counts humorists like Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde and Christopher Moore among her favorite authors.

“A standout is Robin McKinley; her fairy-tale novel Beauty influenced me on so many levels,” says DeWees, but if the influence of McKinley was not evident in Sea of Secrets, readers can look for it in forthcoming books. DeWees is currently working on a manuscript that reworks the ballad Tam Lin into a young adult paranormal romance.

Readers who loved Sea of Secrets and DeWees’ refreshing take on the Gothic romance shouldn’t despair that she’ll abandon the genre altogether. Her love of the foundations of Gothic romance will no doubt bring her back to the genre.

“I’ve always loved spooky stories…the elements of the supernatural and the wonderfully foreboding atmosphere.”

It wouldn’t be surprising, either, if some of DeWees’ future books take place in the past, a place DeWees loves to visit.

The photo that accompanies this profile was taken at the annual Somewhere in Time weekend on Mackinac Island, where the movie was filmed, says DeWees, who adds that “I’ve been a costume nut since I was a little girl — [readers] probably notice how lovingly I described the dresses in Sea of Secrets — so I jumped at the chance to make a 1912 dress to wear to the event. That’s what I’m wearing in the photo.”

 You can purchase Sea of Secrets in e-book format at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble, or in print or e-book at Amazon.


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Book Review: Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees

Every one in a great while, you read a book that, in the immortal words of Little Edie Beale, pulverizes you. That book, my friends, is Amanda DeWees’ Sea of Secrets.

I bought Sea of Secrets during one of Smashwords’ sales a few months back, shuttled it off to my Aluratek, and promptly forgot about it. Shame on me, for Sea of Secrets is just what I’ve been wishing for for years now — a return to the true Gothic romances I loved as a teenager.

Gothic romances on the same lines as Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and the Avon and Signets from the 1970s fall in and out of fashion like hemlines. Whereas the Regencies and historicals that I love so well are part of the popular fiction canon, coming out monthly as regular as clockwork, true Gothics  disappear from the landscape for years on end, leaving those of us who love these books scraping the bottom of the used bookstore barrel for a quality vintage Gothic we haven’t already read.

Sea of Secrets is the Gothic I’d been waiting for. Here’s the synopsis, courtesy of Smashwords:

After her brother is killed in the Crimean War, innocent young Oriel Pembroke finds herself alone in the world.

Disowned by the cruel father who has always despised her, she has nowhere to turn until she is taken under the wing of a glamorous relative she never knew: the former Duchess of Ellsworth, who has scandalized society by remarrying soon after her first husband’s death. At the opulent seaside estate of Ellsmere, Oriel thinks she has found a safe haven—but the darkly handsome young duke, Herron, believes otherwise. Haunted by the death of his father, he suspects that Ellsmere is sheltering a murderer.

Even as Oriel falls in love with the duke, she begins to fear that his grief and suspicion are turning to madness. When dangerous accidents start to befall both Herron and Oriel, however, she realizes that someone may be trying to stop them from discovering the truth about the past. And when her father comes back into her life, she learns that he may hold the answer to the most horrifying secret of all…

Now that’s the recipe for a classic Gothic — the only drawback? Sea of Secrets has set such an impossibly high bar, I’m afraid any other new Gothics I find will never be able to meet it!

DeWees employs all the traditional elements of the classic Gothic — first person narration, vast, almost forbidding estate, a dark mystery, a brooding hero, and a heroine in peril — but does so with a literary style that is as accomplished as that of her best-known antecedents: the Brontes and DuMaurier. Anyone who thinks that popular genre fiction (especially romance) is written by talentless hacks need only pick up Sea of Secrets to see how off base that idea is. DeWees has written a book that can proudly sit on a shelf beside the best literary historical fiction of any day.

But DeWees’ highly-literate, historically accurate writing is hardly the only thing to recommend Sea of Secrets. Like any truly successful Gothic, Sea of Secrets is expertly plotted, and DeWees sustains the mystery at the heart of the story throughout most of the book. It’s a testament to DeWees’ talent that she throws out hints to the mystery’s resolution throughout the book, but that most readers will only appreciate them when the mystery is solved.  In most Gothic romances, the romance is less important to the story than the mystery and the sense of danger that permeates the story, and Sea of Secrets acquits itself well in this aspect, too — the love story, such as it is (I don’t want to give too much away!), is incorporated into the book, rather than the focus of the book.

Not to belabor the point, but I cannot recommend Sea of Secrets highly enough. Amanda DeWees’ book has me excited for a genre that I had feared was dead, and I’ll be waiting impatiently for her next book.

Sea of Secrets is available as an e-book at Smashwords (obviously), Barnes and Noble and at Amazon. A print copy is also available at Amazon.

Did you like Sea of Secrets, honeybun? Here are a couple more books like Sea of Secrets:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Shadow of the Lynx by Victoria Holt