Reviewed by Emma Crowley
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.
Many thanks to Katie James from Pan MacMillan for my copy of The Christmas Secret to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Somehow I always manage to read the summer publications from Karen Swan while the Christmas books remain on my ever increasing TBR pile. I think I just get so busy around the Christmas period, and the weeks in the run up to it, that some Christmas themed books take priority over others. I was determined this year to rectify that so a day or two after Christmas Day I settled down to read The Christmas Secret. I was eager to begin reading the story of Alex Hyde as she travels to the Scottish island of Islay where she has been employed to turn around the fortunes of the company by working on Lochlan Farquhar. A man who has apparently gone off the rails leaving the family run whiskey distillery company on the brink of collapse after so many generations.
I'll admit it took me a little while to settle into the rhythm of the story as there were a lot of characters to familiarise myself with and to also become accustomed to all the terms associated with the production of whiskey but then I found myself thoroughly enjoying the story. Without doubt Karen Swan had done impeccable research into her subject matter. There is a fine line between not supplying enough information regarding the family business and the whiskey production or in the opposite case going over board with the story becoming bogged down in technical terms which just puts off the reader. Here I think the author did achieve the right balance. I'm not a fan of whiskey but I'm sure any reader who is will appreciate even more all the descriptions and the details Karen must have painfully researched.
Right from the moment the reader meets Alex Hyde it's clear she is a top business woman who never places a foot wrong. Her work world is one of perfection and she is always striving to reach the pinnacle of her ambitions. The word defeat or loss is not in her vocabulary, a 100% success rate is what she desires. This may come across that she is an ice queen but that is not the case at all. I warmed to her pretty quickly and in fact admired her throughout the story for not letting things get her down when it seemed the mountain she had to climb was insurmountable especially when she faced such stiff opposition and defiance from Lochlan. One can't say she didn't throw herself into every situation presented to her be it good or bad. In this case I'm thinking of the weekend away with Lochlan hunting with his friends. At the same time there are very, very brief glimpses into her more vulnerable side and I felt she was hiding something beneath her business exterior.
I think Alex arrived on the beautiful island of Islay with one intention on her mind to get the job done as outlined by the chairman of Kentallen whiskey, Sholto Farquhar, as the embarrassment caused by Lochlan cannot continue to go on. Then to get off the island as quick as possible to be home for Christmas. Yet the more Alex became familiar with the set up and looked further behind the façade or the picture presented to the outside world she came to understand there was a lot more going on than at first she believed. In doing so she showed her softer more vulnerable side, she began to allow her own barriers to come down ever so slowly. The magic of the island covered in snow and the closeness she develops with certain characters worked their charm on Alex and maybe this job could turn out to be the best thing she had ever taken on. Karen Swan did such a fantastic job of describing the island and its residents, I could just imagine it in the depths of winter covered in snow. Isolated but at the same time a community spirit at its centre. The Peggies who run the bed and breakfast where Alex stays were just brilliant. Wit and humour abounded yet they were wise beyond their years. They were just such a special part of the book that couldn't have not been there.
As for Lochlan, such a bad picture of him had been initially painted that I feared I would really dislike him for most of the book, in fact I couldn't have been more wrong. Yes he wasn't the most open of people but hurt lies deep within him and until he can open up and talk about what has been eating away at him then there is no way for him to move on and make a success of the business. I could see he only wanted to keep the distillery in the family and uphold the traditions long established but at the same time he realises things have to move with the times. There had to have been a reason for his abrupt behaviour and his not so nice attitude to Alex's arrival. When it was explained I felt it was entirely justifiable. Lochlan was full of rage and it came across as him being irritable, short tempered, unapproachable and unpredictable but there was far more game playing going on here than the reader realises. It's just whether or not things come to light. Alex will have to call on her tactics and resources to fulfil the job she has been employed to do. Will her ultra professional demeanour last as long as she is on the island or will she to undergo a transformation similar to that with what she hopes to achieve with Lochie? I was invested deeply in finding out the answers to these questions.
The Christmas Secret is by no means a quick read at nearly 500 pages long and at times I did question whether it was too long. Towards the end I felt there was a natural point for the story to end but in fact it went on for almost another 100 pages or so. I thought this should have finished here. Why drag things out? The same could be said for the story of the sinking of the Tuscania and how it relates to the island of Islay. It is interspersed throughout the story and I thought this all seems very random and out of place, how will it connect to the modern day story? But in fact it's only as I reached the last two chapters that I realised what I viewed as being extras were in fact completely necessary. The author had done such a fantastic job weaving all the strands of the story together, building one picture up in your mind, leading you to take everything at face value, to believe exactly what you had been told when in fact there were surprises and twists and turns galore to follow. Some that I wouldn't have guessed maybe only a page or two until they were revealed and others I would never have seen coming.
Alex really was an astute person who was at the top of her game in terms of her profession. She was a person never to be underestimated or taken for granted. After all she doesn't earn the big money for no reason. Yes the ending could have turned out very predictable and one might have guessed snippets of it from the midway point but for me it was the most apt ending after all that had gone before it. The Christmas Secret was my first Christmas book by Karen Swan but it won't be my last as this read was brilliantly written with a setting and characters that will long live on in my mind. It was the perfect read I needed to chill out with after the frantic preparations for Christmas. I'm lucky enough now that some other Christmas books by Karen Swan are on my TBR and calling my name. I won't be leaving them waiting too long.