Alex Hyde is the leaders’ leader. An executive coach par excellence, she’s the person the Great and the Good turn to when the pressure gets too much; she can change the way they think, how they operate, she can turn around the very fortunes of their companies.
Her waiting list is months’ long, but even she can’t turn down the unorthodox but highly lucrative crisis call that comes her way a few weeks before Christmas, regarding the troublesome – and troubled – head of an esteemed whisky company in Scotland: Lochlan Farquhar, CEO of Kentallen Distilleries, is a maverick, an enigma and a renegade, and Alex needs to get inside his head before he brings the company to its knees.
It should be business as usual. She can do this in her sleep. Only, when she gets to the remote island of Islay, with the winter snows falling, Alex finds herself out of her comfort zone. For once, she’s not in control – Lochlan, though darkly charismatic, is unpredictable and destructive, her usual methods gaining no traction with him – and with Christmas and her deadline fast approaching, she must win his trust and find a way to close on this deal.
But as she pulls ever closer to him, boundaries become blurred, loyalties loosen and Alex finds herself faced with an impossible choice as she realizes nothing and no-one is as they first seemed.
This is the latest book by Karen Swan, and the second of her titles I have read, following The Rome Affair which I read last summer. Following the first book, I had high expectations for this novel and I was not remotely disappointed.
Firstly, Karen Swan’s books are hefty tomes. This one comes in at just under 500 pages but, despite its length, I was gripped from start to finish and there was not a superfluous word in the whole book. It starts out a few weeks before Christmas when business coach Alex is called to an emergency job to save the fortunes of a Scottish whisky distillery on the island of Islay. This puts Alex outside of her urban comfort zone, but this is only the start of her troubles. The CEO of the company does not want her there, making her job practically impossible, and internal tensions within the business add further complications. Alex is also tussling with personal issues of her own, and throw in an unprofessional attraction between Alex and her client and you have the basis of a book it is impossible to put down. On top of this, we have a thread of island history running through the book linking current events to the true story of the sinking of a US naval troopship off the coast of Islay during World War 2 which was a fascinating dimension and made me eager to read more about it outside of the novel.
There are so many reasons I loved this book. The setting was sublime – a remote Scottish island in the depths of winter – and the author brings it to life beautifully. The landscape, the history, the sense of community, the way the residents’ lives are inextricably linked with the success of the local industry and the responsibility that places on the shoulders of the management in a way it doesn’t in less close-knit communities. Karen Swan brings this vividly to life, I felt like I was there and could feel the warmth, and simultaneously the claustrophobia, of the situation. It was also a fabulous contrast to the background of the main character and how being catapulted into this alien environment helps to throw her off kilter and is partially responsible for the way events unfold.
The amount of detail that Karen goes in to regarding the setting, the history, the process of whisky distillery. Every aspect of the novel is perfect and it must have taken her months to research it all so carefully and precisely. At the same time, every bit of it she uses is essential to the story and she isn’t shoehorning anything in for the sake of it. This can be a difficult line to walk but she does it wonderfully.
The characters are a delightful array, from her local elderly hosts to the Lochlan’s friends and the staff and workers at the distillery. Alex and Lochlan were both complicated, spiky characters that made them interesting but not so awkward that you can’t warm to them. I cared enough about them to be wishing for a happy ending without being sure they were going to get it, you can’t really ask for more in a romance novel. At one point I started to get a little annoyed at the way the main character was acting, thinking she was taking her stance in refusing to get involved with Lochlan beyond what I thought was realistic but, a little further on, it became clear that I had misjudged the situation and there were more factors in play than had been revealed to that point and, when they came to light, her behaviour made perfect sense. It was cleverly done.
If I had a small niggle, it was that at the beginning I was a little confused about where Alex was based and thought she was American but this was the smallest of small quibbles and it may read differently if I went over it again. It did not detract one iota from my enjoyment of the book.
This is a gorgeous story, beautifully written, absorbing, enchanting, beautiful in scope and detail. I can’t wait to go through Karen Swan’s back catalogue.
The Christmas Secret is out now and you can buy a copy here.
About the Author
Karen Swan began her career in fashion journalism before giving it all up to raise her three children and a puppy, and to pursue her ambition of becoming a writer. She lives in the forest in Sussex, writing her books in a treehouse overlooking the Downs. Her books include Christmas at Tiffany’s,Summer at Tiffany’s, The Perfect Present, Christmas in the Snow, Christmas on Primrose Hill and The Paris Secret.