Friday, 7 September 2018

Emma's Review: Summer of Secrets by Nikola Scott

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

August 1939

At peaceful Summerhill, orphaned Maddy hides from the world and the rumours of war. Then her adored sister Georgina returns from a long trip with a new friend, the handsome Victor. Maddy fears that Victor is not all he seems, but she has no idea just what kind of danger has come into their lives...


Chloe is newly pregnant. This should be a joyful time, but she is fearful for the future, despite her husband's devotion. When chance takes her to Summerhill, she's drawn into the mystery of what happened there decades before. And the past reaches out to touch her in ways that could change everything...

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Many thanks to Headline via NetGalley for my copy of Summer of Secrets to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

Summer of Secrets is the first book that I have read by Nikola Scott. It's just the type of book I love - historical fiction with a dual timeline and in this case both strands of the story are strong and absorbing keeping the reader interested and guessing from the start until the very last page. This story is one where you are slowly reeled in and you have to time to observe and get to know the characters, their situations and what feelings and emotions motivate them to act the way they do. I didn't feel there was a rapid pace with everything being fired at you where you become overwhelmed by the amount of information and then in turn you find it quite challenging to keep track of all the goings on. Instead the book had a slow and steady almost relaxing pace and quality despite the nature and tone of some of the subject matter. It's not the case that the story that lies waiting for you between the pages of a book with such a stunning and dramatic cover is all happiness and light., instead I found their to be dark tones and a sense of waiting. As if the characters were just halted in time on the cusp of something very important about to occur in their lives.

During the summer of 1945, the residents of the Summerhill estate in Cornwall are holding their breath, fearful of world events that are about to lead to dramatic changes in everyone's lives. The world is changing all thanks to the madness of one man and, even in their small corner of the country where everything seems so idyllic, the tides of change are apparent and nothing will ever be the same again. One would be forgiven for thinking that this is another story which follows a character's exploits during World War Two and that somehow a mystery of sorts is connected back to the present. But instead it is the days leading up to the announcement that Britain is at war with Germany that this book focuses on. The outside world is preparing for war but at Summerhill the arrival home of Georgina, after holidaying for six months in Europe, is enough to up scuttle the peace and calm that had pervaded.

Madeleine aged 16 loves the safety and calm aura that exudes from the house and surrounding land. She feels nothing can touch her here and that she can remain hidden away from the world content in enjoying nature and the animals she observes and subsequently draws in her sketch books. She is a free spirit in a way spending endless hours outdoors lost in her own world but this is within the grounds of Summerhill. Yet from quite early on the reader gets the feeling that there is something that haunts Maddy. She is not wild and brash and in with the it crowd as is Georgina, she prefers seclusion and peace to be free what she wants to do within the confines she has established for herself. The more we delve deeper into her character it becomes apparent she is complex but is also tortured by a significant event in her past which has left her fearful of going anywhere near water. Not very convenient given the estate borders the sea.

Maddy had long craved the return of Georgina as living with an old aunt and the servants is not all it is cracked up to be. She has always felt a closeness and bond with her sister but time away from Summerhill has transformed Georgina and maybe she needed this time away to explore the wider world and set her sights a little higher. As the country braces itself for a declaration of war Georgina arrives back with a group of friends who couldn't be more different from Maddy and she feels they are out of place at Summerhill. Amongst them is Victor who has established himself as Georgina's boyfriend with Georgina hoping for more.

What follows are observations from Maddy of what is going on and as the guests continue with their stay, Maddy's confidence is knocked and her unease grows. Tension becomes ever more apparent and combined with the fact Maddy is keeping a secret of her own the reader begins to feel that this is all one big train journey heading for nothing but an unnatural ending. What dangers, suspicion and intrigue lie in store for the family and will their lives ever be the same again once all the players have made themselves known? Is Maddy justified in the feelings that are running through her heart and mind? If they are spoken out loud will Maddy ruin the peace and safety net she had established for herself at Summerhill?

Running alongside Maddy's story is the story of Chloe in the present day living in Plymouth and married to a doctor named Aidan. Chloe on one hand is a very strong person or at least she was until she married Aidan. She had more than a passing interest in photography and could have made a good solid living out of it but since her marriage Chloe has changed, not that she at first notices it herself. She feels the same and for the most part acts the same but as we get to know her more we can see that her life is not all as it seems or how Aidan would like the outside world to see it. Chloe does not work any more and nothing at all is to be kept from Aidan. He likes to know her whereabouts and what she is doing at any given time in the day. Aidan feels it is her duty and it is important for her to be at home for him to keep the house in pristine order and meals readily prepared. But Chloe similar to Maddy is harbouring a secret of her own and it is one in which she is not willing to share with anyone at this point in time particularly with her husband.

I could see from the outset that Chloe was trapped almost in a predicament of her own making. She embraced Aidan when she first met him for the love he offered and the support he gave her in caring for her brother Danny who is suffering from a neurological illness which is non curable. Now Danny is in a home and out of the way and Aidan can focus all his attention on Chloe. Aidan was just plain sinister from the get go, his intentions never seemed genuine. All these outpourings of love, affection and care seemed so false and it's obvious to see there is a lot more things going on underneath the surface. He was domineering and controlling.

For a time I couldn't comprehend how Chloe couldn't see what was going on beneath her very eyes. How control of her own life and destiny was being wrenched from her grasp and instead of unity and love in a marriage it was developing into something far more dangerous. But when you step back and absorb all the finer strands of the story I think you must accept that for those in certain situations they feel trapped with nowhere to turn to. For some they don't even realise what is going on so caught up are they in just getting through the day in one piece. Something needed to change in Chloe's psyche for her sake and for the sake of the secret she was keeping close to her chest.

Chloe's love of photography, and of the children’s books written by Maddy and her sister, are what establishes the connection between the past and the present. There are innumerable comparisons to be made between the two women and the situations they found themselves in and I think is what makes this book ideal for a book club. Seeking out the comparisons and discussing them in general and seeing did fellow readers view things in the same way you did? I love when a major secret is revealed that throws you right off track away from everything that you had been thinking. Here there was one major one but to be honest I wanted even more after so much dedication in setting up the entire story and establishing two women at the forefront I wanted a major jaw dropping moment that left me saying wow. I didn't get that and although I really did enjoy the book overall there was just a small element missing of even just one or two major surprises slipped in that would have elevated the book to an even greater level than it has already achieved. But I did enjoy the relationship that brought Maddy and Chloe together for the unity, friendship, realisation, awareness and acceptance that it gave both women.

Summer of Secrets was an impressive read which showcased a talented author who I sense is on the cusp of really great things. I am keen to go back and read her d├ębut novel My Mother's Shadow 'now and am looking forward to seeing where her writing journey will take her in the future.

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