Together by Christmas by Karen Swan
I appreciate that a lot of books reviewed on the blog are fiction, but what you may not know is that I am fascinated by journalist's stories, particularly those who have bravely put themselves in the very worst of situations to bring us the human story. As I sit here typing this post, I am looking at a biography of Kate Adie and the wartime photography of Don McCullin and Larry Burrows. It is a world where I imagine one sees people at their very worst, but also at their very best.
It is at this point you would be forgiven for wondering where I am going with all of this. This is a review, after all, by the Queen of Christmas fiction. But Karen Swan's writing isn't all frothy whimsey and candy canes. At times she introduces some difficult and interesting topics, in this case it is the aftermath of the Syrian conflict, set against the background of beautiful Amsterdam.
Lee lives in Amsterdam with her young son, Jasper and works as a celebrity photographer, having left behind her career as an award winning wartime photographer. Why did she leave this career behind? and why does she no longer speak to the journalist she worked closely with, Harry, even when he follows her to Amsterdam? One day she discovers a book left in her bicycle basket with the words 'Help Me' written inside and with the help of the book's dishy author, Sam, sets about locating the author of the message. Who left the book? What will happen with Sam? What happened with Harry and where is Jasper's father?
This was everything I have come to expect from a Karen Swan novel; interesting, slightly edgy-plot, engaging characters and glamorous, well-researched locations. Lee is a very likeable character, understandably protective of Jasper given what she has seen of the world. Sam is a worthy lead with a dark secret of his own. Lee is surrounded by a great supporting cast. I loved her cheeky assistant Bart, who also manages to provide a good comment on the world of celebrity.
The plot has many threads; the history of Harry and Lee and their last assignment in Syria told through flashback and the mystery of the book in the basket.My favourite part of the book concerns Christmas and winter traditions in the Netherlands, most of which I know nothing about. We witness the arrival of Sinterklaas in November, Sinterklaas Avond where St Nicholas is accompanied by Zwarte Piet who leaves gifts and sweets for the children. As the story decamps to rural Holland we learn about the Midwinter Hoornblazen and the Elfstedentocht, the iconic Dutch skating race which covers 11 cities and is raced on the canals. It is absolutely fascinating and differs widely from UK traditions. Amsterdam is breathtaking and it certainly left me feeling Christmassy all over again.
You know that I love Karen Swan's book and this one delivers all the elements I love - great plot, beautiful Christmas traditions and an interesting edge about the fascinating world of wartime journalism. What is not to love?