Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The sound of gunfire, Lisbon 1940


Come inside...a short glimpse inside 300 Days of Sun. I always enjoy reading and researching into a fascinating subject, and with this novel I loved writing the sections of the novel set in wartime Lisbon. Here's one of the early scene-setters, viewed through the eyes of Alva Barton, wife of an American newspaperman. The Bartons have left Rome, then Paris as the German army of occupation swept into France in 1940. After a nerve-jangling journey south, they have arrived in Portugal's capital city, along with many other refugees desperate to escape Europe.
 
The attic room at the Hotel Métropole was stuffy and a long way from the bathroom. But the Bartons were used to being thrown back on their own resources. Wasn’t that how they had ended up here? They were still the people they were before they lay on these hard twin beds, getting up each morning to eat salty toasted cheese sandwiches for breakfast and lobsters and langoustines for lunch, considered not extravagant but very standard local fare. Scrupulous cleanliness was the norm and they were treated with warmth and cordiality by the Portuguese at the hotel, in the cafés, in the shops.

Like Rome, Lisbon was a city on seven hills. After it was destroyed by the great earthquake of 1755, the architecture that rose from the ruins was bold and uniform in style, the best the eighteenth century could offer. Set back from the Tagus waterfront behind a wide square with a horseman statue was a triumphal arch with colonnaded building forming wings to either side, reminiscent of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. In its way, the city was as self-confident and beguiling as Paris. It even had its Champs Elysée: the magnificent tree-lined Avenida de la Liberdade.
 
On display in the stores of the Rua Augusta was an abundance of goods and food, much of it imported: McVitie’s biscuits from England, Haig whisky from Scotland, German stollen cakes made with marzipan. Newspapers with all the familiar titles, the Daily Mail from London, the Herald and France Soir from Paris, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, squashed together into the racks in similar proportion to the displaced persons in the cafés. The British Embassy was next to the building that housed the German Legation, which left the Union Jack fluttering with authority only a few hundred yards from the Nazi swastika.
 
 
At night, Lisbon possessed a rare beauty. Light danced from shops and houses; churches and palaces were floodlit like stage sets. The streets were full with a sense of happiness until three in the morning. The clubs oozed American dance music. It was all too possible to mistake it for a safe haven, a place of excitement and adventure. When they heard gunfire as they walked through a side street, on the second night, they cowered against a wall but no advance troops appeared. The next day they were told that what they had most likely heard was the beating of carpets. A local law forbade the practice between the hours of nine a.m. and midnight, so those householders who abhorred early rising beat their carpets in the party hours.
 
 
300 Days of Sun is available through all good bookshops and on Amazon - link here.

From HarperCollins US catalog: "Deborah Lawrenson’s mesmerizing novel transports readers to a sunny Portuguese town with a shadowy past—where two women, decades apart, are drawn into a dark game of truth and lies that still haunts the shifting sea marshes.

Traveling to Faro, Portugal, journalist Joanna Millard hopes to escape an unsatisfying relationship and a stalled career. Faro is an enchanting town, and the seaside views are enhanced by the company of Nathan Emberlin, a charismatic younger man. But beneath the crumbling façade of Moorish buildings, Joanna soon realizes, Faro has a seedy underbelly, its economy compromised by corruption and wartime spoils. And Nathan has an ulterior motive for seeking her company: he is determined to discover the truth involving a child’s kidnapping that may have taken place on this dramatic coastline over two decades ago.

Joanna’s subsequent search leads her to Ian Rylands, an English expat who cryptically insists she will find answers in The Alliance, a novel written by American Esta Hartford. The book recounts an American couple’s experience in Portugal during World War II, and their entanglements both personal and professional with their German enemies. Only Rylands insists the book isn’t fiction, and as Joanna reads deeper into The Alliance, she begins to suspect that Esta Hartford’s story and Nathan Emberlin’s may indeed converge in Faro -- where the past not only casts a long shadow but still exerts a very present danger."

                                                

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

November in Provence

 
November in Provence has been glorious. Each day the hillsides have been turning a deeper gold, and the bright sunlight brings everything into sharp relief. The lavender fields (above) show ribs of muted grey-green. Apricot and cherry trees have turned a flaming red like orchards of lit torches, and our unpicked muscat grapes are purple against glowing yellow leaves on the trellis that gave shade to our summer dining table.
 
Been having a lovely time seeing friends and relaxing, and wandering around the Luberon hill villages after a busy time in England during September and October. It's all much quieter than when we were last here. The restaurants have autumn menus - we had a special Game and Wild Mushroom one at a local auberge the other night, featuring tiny tasters of delicious pumpkin soup and wild boar, chanterelles with truffle and seared scallop, venison, a rather experimental black truffle and vanilla ice-cream (not sure about that one) followed by a chocolate bombe.
 
 
One a cloudless day there's often warmth, too. Here is a glimpse of the castle at Gordes,, and now is the time, without all the tourist crowds, to wander round this spectacularly beautiful village with its panoramic views. Here I am, on a slightly colder day, in Goult.
 
 

It was mellower, and slightly misty that day, and the view from the top by the old windmill was softer and more green than in other higher parts of the valley.
 
 
Finally - wishing Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends and readers in the USA!  

Saturday, 29 October 2016

The author reads: audio clip

 
Last month I did a radio interview on Resonance FM in London, during which I read a couple of extracts from 300 Days of Sun. I was sent one of the extracts the other day, and I thought I would share it here: Deborah Lawrenson sets the scene in the town of Faro, from the opening of the novel.
 
It's only two minutes long, but while you're listening you might like to look at this photo I took early one morning from the top of the Hotel Faro looking over the Jardim Manuel Bivar towards the Old Town gates where the storks nest. The white structures are the food stalls that opened at night during the folk festival. In the foreground is the bandstand where Joanna meets Ian Rylands, and beyond the marina are the lacy green salt marshes and the islands. If you enlarge the photo, there is even a plane coming in to land. Hope you enjoy it!
 
 
Available at all good booksellers and from Amazon.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Romantic Poets made Terrible Husbands

 
What have you learned  from Literature? That was the question I had some fun answering this week over on Instagram, and thought I would share it here.
 
Romantic Poets made Terrible Husbands. They were always slipping out for country walks (marching the dirt back on their boots for Mrs Coleridge to clean up, long before the invention of the vacuum cleaner) and warbling on about death or daffodils when they returned. All they wanted to do was drone on about themselves and the revelations offered by hills and sheep. (“A tot of laudanum, Wordsworth?” “Don’t mind if I do. Now, about that baa-ing crag...tortured youth or weathered age?”) While Mrs C contemplated the muddy footprints leading to the fireside and had some insights of her own, no doubt.
 
When they were at home, these scribbling softies couldn't cope with interruptions - look at fuss about the Person from Porlock. How on earth did they cope with family life? Can you imagine being married to Wordsworth? All that "Well, my sister Dorothy says...and Dorothy wouldn't do it like that…and Dorothy always listens!"
As for selfish Shelley and his bloody boat! Off sailing when the house on the shore was sorely in need of some manly DIY. His wife was expected to get cracking with hammer and nails herself, cope with a flooding ground floor, sick children and miscarriages while he skipped off -“Hello Sea, hello Sky and Wind!”- to see a yacht builder who could supply a bigger, better boy’s toy to keep up with his posturing  mate Byron…no wonder Mary saw monsters under the skin of men.
 
What about Keats, all white-faced and melancholic after spending all night listening for nightingales - what good would he have been in a crisis? All ripe was the drowsy hour for him, with his Negative Capability. Clever, eh? Just droop around waiting for Happenings to happen.
How a Mrs K would have thrilled to that excuse as she rushed around attending to the practicalities of life. (“And another thing, dear husband, the water you slosh on the floor around the copper bathtub does NOT evaporate. The dryness is effected by a cross woman with an absorbent cloth!”) And in his own words: “Oh, for ten years, that I may overwhelm Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed…” Blimey. Talk about a soggy nana. No wonder it was a No Thank You from La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
 

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Scent of Night, a short story


The sun cut sharp as a blade across the floor tiles. Penny felt the warmth on her face as she padded to the window and pushed open wooden shutters to embrace the morning. Beyond the courtyard and the garden below, the wide blue ripples of the Luberon hills hung like a great curtain across the landscape. The only sounds came from the first sleepy cicadas.

Perfection: the beauty and peace of a month in Provence; the summer heat and light. This rambling farmhouse they had rented hadn’t disappointed, far from it. Inside and out, there was space to breathe and long, calming views from the hillside.

Trees whispered in cooling breezes. Sunk into the garden was a swimming pool with water the colour of glacier melt.

“Are you going down to get the bread or am I?” John’s voice carried a plea, a hungover-sounding appeal to her good nature.

He was still a sheeted walrus on the bed.

“It’s your turn,” said Penny. “And they’re your guests.”

And I wish they’d go, she thought. Not even in the sense of “leave”, just go to the boulangerie one morning for once instead of expecting to be waited on as if they were staying in a hotel. Because this holiday was supposed to be their anniversary treat (twenty-five years married!) but it hadn’t quite been the paradise she’d hoped for.

It had been fun while Sam and Lottie were staying, but they were adults now with jobs and commitments of their own, and plans that didn’t include spending too much time with Mum and Dad. After the children, their partners and assorted friends had gone, Penny and John had a huge empty house in the South of France to themselves. That was fine with Penny.

She had visions of sitting in the shady courtyard under a fragrant fig tree and reading, or wandering round gorgeous villages looking at brocante markets, and drinking glasses of light, fruity rosé at lunchtime, all the things she never seemed to have time to do at home.

But it hadn’t worked out like that.
 

Instead of drifting dreamily around lavender fields and spending long lazy afternoons doing whatever we want, Penny thought as she scooped up the car keys and her straw basket for the bread and croissants, I have been running a small hotel and restaurant for all the friends and family John invited to drop by as it seemed a shame not to make the most of it. It was amazing how many of them had taken up the offer.

And now, after three weeks of hot-flush-fuelled cooking and cleaning and bed-making, John’s old workmate Simon was the final straw. He had turned up, newly divorced, with a younger woman in tow – and she was awful. Her name was Sassie (Saskia), she was a pin-slim, groomed corporate lawyer in her early thirties, and she lay by the pool all day checking her Blackberry. And it went without saying she never lifted a finger to help and looked with pity at Penny and the cellulite that no sarong could mask – though not enough pity actually to get dressed and volunteer to do the supermarket run for a change, of course.

She was waiting for Penny downstairs, a vision of blonde good health in a wisp of beachwear.

“Are you going into town?” she asked. “Because if you are, could you get me some more sun cream?” Saskia studied one slim bronzed arm. “Factor 15 ought to do it.”

Penny opened her mouth to suggest that perhaps Sassie might like to go herself, as the chemist was only a few doors away from the bread shop, but closed it again as she realised that left to Sassie there would be probably be no breakfast. She seemed to exist on hot water and slices of lemon.

“Who owns this place, again?” asked Sassie. Penny had the impression their guest had had a good nose around while she was alone downstairs.

“A composer and his wife.”

“It’s all a bit of a mish-mash, isn’t it?”

“I rather like it,” Penny said, beginning to walk off. She supposed some of the old French furniture had seen better days. The large splashy paintings on the walls were flaking. And the brown wood statue of a monk in the hall was a little unsettling, as was the wall sconce of an arm reaching out of the iron frame with a candle. But it was shabby chic, wasn’t it? It was perfect for this house of white walls speckled with the patina of time and gleaming terracotta tiles on the floors, as were the rusty garden chairs and odd stone artefacts outside.
 

Anyway, Penny thought but didn’t say, if this doesn’t suit you, go somewhere else. But after three days Sassie and Simon showed no sign of moving on.

Later that morning Penny had returned with the supplies (and the sun cream which Sassie had just picked up from the kitchen island and hadn’t even offered to pay for), and was making a cheesecake for dinner. She absent-mindedly licked the mixing spoon then started to scrape the bowl. She felt fat and dragged down. It is a truth universally acknowledged (though not nearly often enough), thought Penny, that a woman approaching 50 is in need of a husband who likes a good armful because, by God, that was what he’d be getting.

Through the kitchen window she noticed that Sassie had taken her bikini top off. John – straining to hold his stomach in – was eagerly adjusting the parasol above her and taking his time about it, while Simon handed her a drink. Unless he leaves me for a younger model, of course, Penny hastily revised her homely assumption. He was still a good-looking man, big and broad with a lovely, generous nature. A younger woman would be lucky to have him.

The drinking went on throughout the lunch Penny laid out on the terrace: a vibrant tomato salad on a deep cobalt plate, goat’s cheese and sweet onion tartlets, pâté and fresh bread. The sun seared down from the bluest of skies. When everyone else slunk off for a siesta, a sober Penny cleared the dishes away, made herself a cup of coffee and went down to the pool with her book.

She tipped her face up to the heat, luxuriating in the time alone.
 

That evening, sunset burned a rosy tangerine streaked with gold. Everyone assembled expectantly by the table on the terrace. Penny produced more chilled wine and a sumptuous dinner, and repeated the catering process. Sassie only picked at the sea bream and ribbons of courgette. She was comfortably installed on a cushioned chair telling the men about the high-profile cases she had worked on, making them laugh and admire her even more with tales of defeated opposition and great men brought down, as Penny got up and cleared away.

In the kitchen she cut herself a hefty misery slice of cheesecake as she surveyed the stacks of plates. A light tinkling of laughter from Sassie wafted through to the kitchen. Penny drowned her out by crashing pans loudly, but no one seemed to notice.

After midnight, Penny lay in bed unable to drop off to sleep. Next to her, John had started to snore gently. The trouble was, Penny thought, I’m on my own with this. I am just myself, and Sassie is a sex goddess and invincible career woman. She tried not to think about what was going on in the bedroom down the corridor. But all that success shouldn’t stop her from behaving with basic courtesy, even if friendliness was too much to hope for.

Perhaps a fellow grumpy old woman might have noticed Sassie’s selfishness, but the men wouldn’t have a clue. And in comparison, there was no doubt about it: Penny had let herself go. She was wondering rather reluctantly whether she might have to start going to some kind of gym, when she gradually became aware of a scent carried on the air. It was a lovely perfume, of vanilla and sweet lavender, which then became a kind of chocolate smoke. Minute by minute it was becoming stronger, until it seemed to pervade the room.

It was either coming through the open window from outside, from some night-fragrant plant down in the courtyard – or was it a scented candle that Sassie had lit? Penny got out of bed and went out on to the terrace outside the bedroom and breathed in deeply. The scent was carried off by a faint breath of wind in the dark. Above was a luminous arc of silver stars, bright and burning in the black sky. All was still and quiet.
 
 
It was strange; the scent didn’t seem to be coming from the garden. Penny waited a while, enjoying the profound silence, then went back to bed. In the darkness, she lay on her back enveloped by the lovely scent from a source that was still mysterious and closed her eyes.

But when she mentioned it the next day, Sassie didn’t know what Penny was talking about.

“I can assure you it was nothing to do with me,” she insisted.

“It was quite pungent – lavender and rose and vanilla and chocolate and burnt almonds. Really strong and smoky. I was wondering if it was a candle or something…” persisted Penny.

But Sassie shook her head, and denied everything. “I only ever wear a very light delicate perfume. I absolutely loathe anything strong and smoky. The very thought gives me a headache and makes me want to run.”

That evening, at Simon’s suggestion, they went out to a restaurant on the edge of a beautiful hill-top village. Penny had put on a new maxi-dress and pulled herself together. She took a little more time and trouble with her make-up and decided that whatever happened she would make an effort. It was so lovely to be taken out to eat this evening instead of taken for granted.
 

From their table outside under a vine canopy, they could see for miles. All down the valley, the distinctive vertical crevices in the ridge of the mountain darkened as the air softened, until they seemed to be great dusky rivers cascading down to the valley floor.

“To Penny,” said Simon, raising his glass, “Who has looked after us so beautifully. Very much appreciated.”

It was so unexpected, Penny forgot any lingering annoyance. Candles were lit, and dishes of mouth-watering Provençal food arrived. Under the table, John squeezed her hand. Penny felt herself relax in the warmth of the evening and the effect of the wine, and let Sassie be the centre of attention.
They all drank too much. Simon constantly leaned back in his seat and ordered fresh bottles of palest rosé. Penny, sitting next to him, noticed the criss-cross patterns of red veins in his cheeks, and the way he looked at Sassie as if he couldn’t believe his luck that she was with him.

Everyone except Sassie finished with a trio each of crème brûlées, infused with lavender, thyme and peach. Penny sat back, replete and glowing from a glorious afternoon in the sun. But when the bill came and Simon tried to pay, his credit card was refused and it was John who settled up.

Back at the house, another bottle was freed from John’s stock.

“Push on through, eh?” roared Simon, pulling the cork.

“I’m going to bed,” said Penny. She didn’t want so much as another sip. She heard Sassie coming up about half an hour later, but the men stayed up into the early hours, drinking in the garden.

The next morning, though the sky was cloudless again and the heat rising, there was a distinct chill in the atmosphere.

Sassie was fuming.

“We are leaving, as soon as we can,” she hissed as they came downstairs.

Simon blanched. It was clear from her tone she expected to get her way.

“And as for you,” she said to Penny, though barely acknowledging her with a glance, “Drenching our room with that suffocating scent in our room after I’d specifically said I can only tolerate the lightest of fragrances… It gave me the most appalling night, made me physically sick. I can’t think why you did that.”

“But I didn’t –”

Sassie waved her words away imperiously. “You obviously don’t want us here, so we’re leaving, and that’s that.”

Penny decided to offer no resistance.
 

An hour later they were saying goodbye: Simon reluctantly and apologetically, struggling with the bags. Sassie strode ahead towards Penny, but the four-inch heels she’d put on for travelling caught on an uneven paving stone as she approached, throwing her towards Penny and forcing them to embrace far more closely than either intended. She was bony as a starved child, thought Penny, as they pulled apart awkwardly and exchanged thin smiles. She smelled of lemon pith, sharp and bitter.

“Bye, then,” said Penny.

“Was it you?” asked John. He didn’t seem concerned in the slightest.

“No, it wasn’t! I didn’t go near their room, not since I delivered the fresh towels Sassie asked for, but that was yesterday morning.”

She wondered whether to mention the mysterious perfume, but then John said: “Poor old Simon.”

“What?” Poor old Simon, the successful entrepreneur with the stunning younger woman? Had her hearing gone now?

John was positively jaunty as he measured out coffee and filled the pot with water. “He poured it all out last night. He’s pining for his ex-wife and he’s taken a massive loss on his last deal. There’s not much left, and no doubt when Sassie finds out, she’ll be off permanently. I know her sort.”

“I thought you thought she was marvellous,’ said Penny.

“I was being nice, for Simon’s sake. He hasn’t had much luck lately.”

Penny sat down with relief. “She was so irritating,” she said.

“Not a woman of substance,” smiled John, reaching out for her.

“Like me,” she said sadly.

John bent his head and kissed her gently. “In all the best ways.”

“Three whole days left to ourselves,” said Penny happily.

She pottered into the sitting room and noticed a book had fallen off a shelf. It was an illustrated history of lavender growing and she opened it instead of putting it straight back. The first picture was a photograph of a house, this very house. A piece of paper covered in handwritten notes fluttered out. “Marthe Lincel, creator of perfumes,” Penny read, “was inspired by her childhood home, Les Genévriers. Lavande de Nuit, her most famous fragrance, was said to capture the spirit of Provence…”

Penny took the book outside and spent the whole day reading in the garden. The tranquillity and the books she dipped into were balm for her soul.

That night, she woke and smelled the perfume again. It was a soft warm caress all around her, and it was heavenly.
 
 
This is a story I wrote some years ago  for Woman and Home magazine in the UK, and it appears in the anthology The Coffee Shop Book Club. I posted it in short episodes over the course of last week on Instagram, as part of the Bookstagram Gala, and I thought I ought to post the whole story here in case anyone missed a bit. I hope any readers who know The Lantern and The Sea Garden enjoyed the nod to the setting and the characters who appear in them. 
 
My latest novel 300 Days of Sun is available in the UK for only £2.99 on Kindle and at all good retailers in the USA, including here on Amazon.com.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Sunset seascape

 
As soon as I saw this gorgeous picture, I recognised it as the scene in my mind when I wrote the opening of 300 Days of Sun. Taken, with no filter, by my friend Sara Barraud at Zambujeira do Mar in southern Portugal, it captures the other worldly light at a certain point in the evening when reality seems to recede. Sara is a garden designer by profession, and a brilliant nature photographer. If you are on Instagram you can find her stream here.
 
Here is the extract from the novel's prologue, when a mother stands transfixed:
 
A few careless minutes, and the boy was gone. 

    Violet shadows stretched from the rocks, clock hands over the sand. She shouldn’t have allowed herself to linger, but the sea and sky had merged into a shimmering mirror of copper and red; it was hard to tell if she was floating above the water, or standing on air. Waves beat time on the shore then reached out to caress her feet.

   She could hear the children shrieking with pleasure. A short distance away, the path threaded up through the rocks to the garden of pine trees and gold coin daisies: Horta das Rochas, the “garden of rocks” near the edge of the world, where famous explorers and navigators once set sail for unknown continents.

   Her eyes were still on the dissolving horizon when she called the children. A scampering on the wet sand brought a small hand to her leg. She glanced down.

   ‘Look!’ said the girl.

   Her daughter pointed to a flock of birds flying in silhouette against a blood-orange cloud. They watched for a moment.
   ‘Time to go back,’ she said.
   The boy, older by a year, spent hours by the rock pool, staring at the stirrings of sea life in miniature. It was no more than a few steps from where she was standing. ‘Tico!’ she called, using his baby name.

   No answer.

   The rock pool was deserted. 

    ‘Where’s Tico?’ 

    ‘Gone,’ said the girl.

    ‘He’s hiding! Come on.’ 

    She took the girl’s hand and they ran to the wind-carved cave. ‘Tico!’

    ‘Tico!’ echoed the girl.

    The opening in the rocks was in deep shadow, cold and dark. The girl clutched tighter. They both called again. No answer. They felt along the damp creased walls, for a warm, giggling mass balled up on the ground. The cave was empty. Outside the sunset deepened. They were alone on the beach.

    All the way up the path, they called to him. No answer.
 
A reminder to UK readers - if that has intrigued you, 300 Days of Sun is on promo for the next week or so only as a Kindle Monthly Deal for only 99p.


   

Monday, 5 September 2016

Portugal through foreign eyes

 
I confess, I was quite worried about what Portuguese readers would make of 300 Days of Sun when it was translated and published by Editorial Presenca over the summer. I hoped I had captured the essence of the country as the backdrop to my story but was well aware that the shadows lurking under the sunny surface might prove controversial. Had I gone too far, or simply got too much wrong?
 
For all that the British enjoy reading about themselves through foreign eyes - think how Bill Bryson has endeared himself to the nation with his mercilessly hilarious observations - I wondered how the proud Portuguese would react to a tale involving present day economic woes, wartime intrigue and several  real-life child disappearances on the Algarve coast.

To be fair, the two intertwined stories, past and present, concern the situations that foreigners in Portugal find themselves involved in, so their insights into the country are designed to be those of outsiders. First impressions are a key part of the narrative.
 
Well, apart from an opinion piece in the august Diario de Noticias, the Lisbon equivalent of The Times, in which Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdardóttir and I were the subject of a bit of a rant about foreign writers stereotyping the country's characters, possibly humorous, possibly not, hard to tell using Google translate and rudimentary word recognition - but great publicity for our books, so thanks for that - the reaction has been incredibly positive.
 
There was a lovely mention in SAPO's online summer crime reading round-up and here is a rough translation of a review from The Styland blog:
 
"The use of the town of Faro almost as a character is intense to the point of giving us details about our country which we probably never noticed but that the author somehow found them relevant to put in her book. And she does a fantastic job sending us mentally to all the scenarios with absolutely phenomenal descriptions. I confess that I had tears at times: but because the descriptions of our traditions are beyond reproach. It seemed as if the author lived here, but no. She just spent two weeks in Faro with her daughter, fell in love with our culture and managed to convey our story in a touching way."
 
 
In fact, many Portuguese reviewers and bloggers have loved the fact that the novel holds a mirror up to their country, with the reflection filtered through fresh eyes. I just adored this blog post by Fernanda on As Leituras da Fernanda (again, a very rough translation using Google):
 
"This book caught my attention for a simple reason: the fact that the author was not Portuguese. It seemed interesting to read about Portugal at the hands of a foreigner. Perceiving a little of what they see in this our little garden by the sea. And really, it did not disappoint me. I liked the author's voice very much. Very lyrical, but without pretentiousness, for the viewpoint of a simple tourist, not making value judgments, which is sometimes difficult for those who write. Although she never lived in Portugal she gives with enough consistency the Portuguese way of life, our traditions and our history." Though she does go on to write: "I'm just not sure she has understood what is missing." Now there's an intriguing suggestion - I want to know!
 
In the UK, 300 Days of Sun is available this month on the Kindle Monthly Deal promotion for only 99p. 
 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Algarve: This Shore is More

 
"Mykonos may be alluring, Ibiza tantalizing, and St Tropez may have the ultimate swagger, but the Algarve in Portugal is my port of call for dreamy, charming and authentic. And the light: at sunrise, it’s luminescent with shades of cotton candy and bluebells; at sunset, it dissolves listlessly into a canvas of tangerine and ink."    Scarlett Roitman

Isn't that a beautiful scene? I discovered Scarlett's blog through Instagram and was drawn immediately to her gorgeous descriptions of Faro and the coast, backdrop to many scenes in 300 Days of Sun.

The introduction to her post This Shore is More continues:

"I may not be a creature of habit, but when it comes to July and August, all roads seem to lead to the Algarve. I’ve been coming here for fifteen summers. My husband, Mark, and I loved it so much, we started developing properties here (and if you’re interested, visit www.thekeysatquinta.com). It’s a mere two and half hours from London, summer perfection is guaranteed (it averages 300 days of sunshine a year), and it truly has the most spectacular beaches in Europe. This is a canvas of whitewashed towns and villages, scented orange groves, rugged, russet coastline and biscuit-coloured sands."
 
You can carry on reading over on the Diary of a Londoness blog - and I strongly urge you to do so, for stunning pictures, some lovely writing and a glorious taste of the Algarve!
 

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Belles Rives: F Scott Fitzgerald at Juan-les-Pins

 
A long-held wish came true last weekend. I went to the Hotel Belles Rives near Antibes on the Côte d’Azur. We were staying with old friends nearby and this, to my sublime delight, was where they had booked for dinner on Saturday evening.

For this was the villa that F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda rented for the summer in 1926. They had so enjoyed their time on the French Riviera the previous year with wealthy American socialites Gerald and Sara Murphy and their bohemian circle - Gertrude Stein and Picasso, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, and their mutual friend Ernest Hemingway - that Scott and Zelda returned with their five-year-old daughter Scottie to recapture the experience.
 
 
 
Ninety years ago, the property on the edge of the shore at Juan-les-Pins was called the Villa St. Louis, and was supposed to be a retreat from their frenetic life in Paris, where Scott was trying to write a new novel after the publication – to surprisingly indifferent sales – of The Great Gatsby, but constantly getting sidetracked by friends like Ernest Hemingway and the bottle, and Zelda was studying dance. 

The heat and light, the blue Mediterranean sea and scented umbrella pines, the lush, bright flowers and balmy nights provided Fitzgerald with a sensuous backdrop for the novel which would become Tender is the Night: the “diffused magic of the hot sweet South … the soft-pawed night and the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below”. Even today, when development has scarred the landscape he would have seen, his description of place is instantly recognisable.
Though the building has been extended, it is still owned by the same family who turned the Villa St. Louis into a hotel in 1929. The ambiance of the 1920s is carefully preserved and enhanced, and the entrance foyer (pictured below) leads straight out onto the fabled terrace above the sea.

As the sun set and the lights began to scintillate on the hills towards Cannes and on the yachts at anchor, a small green warning light began to blink at the end of a jetty on the shallow rocky shore. Could something similar have been here on Fitzgerald’s previous visits to the area and found its way into the book as the green light on the dock that Jay Gatsby makes a symbol of his longing for Daisy?
 
We sipped champagne Bellinis overlooking the water. It was impossible not to be “borne back ceaselessly into the past”. Fitzgerald’s writing is remarkable for its sense of loss and nostalgia, even for the moment that has only just passed. It occurred to me that the Portuguese word saudade, untranslatable in English, comes closest to capturing the yearning sadness that infuses his most lyrical passages, trying to hold fast to moments of fleeting beauty. All the more poignant when you think of Zelda's descent and the subject matter of Tender is the Night, a novel that would not be published until 1934 due to her illness and Scott's need to earn easier money in the interim to pay for her medical care.
For the Fitzgeralds, the summer of 1926 on the Cap d’Antibes did not prove idyllic, despite the setting. Zelda was close to the madness that would blight the rest of her life. Scott made little progress on Tender is the Night and took refuge in drink, as he always did. Neither could Zelda restrain herself. Their increasingly reckless and erratic behaviour resulted in strained friendships with the Murphys and others. One night Zelda threw herself headfirst down a flight of stone steps because she was so incensed that the dancer Isadora Duncan was flirting with Scott.
Sadly, the rented villa was the scene of vicious marital arguments. In adulthood, Scottie recalled her parents fighting bitterly and constantly. Zelda kept fully packed luggage in every room, threatening departure at the slightest grievance. The dream of a successful life together was coming to an end.
 
 
The story goes that one night husband and wife had been drinking hard, and – inevitably – fighting. Rising to Zelda’s taunts about his professional and personal failures, Fitzgerald stormed out. At a restaurant not far away in Juan-les-Pins, where an orchestra was employed every evening to entertain the diners, he persuaded the musicians to come home with him, no doubt offering a ridiculous amount of money. He led them into the Villa St. Louis, ushered them into a room – and locked them in. He commanded them to play all night if they hoped to be released by dawn. Then he turned to Zelda and asked her if she still thought he was a loser.

In the present day, the music comes from the piano bar, a grand room with stunning décor that carefully evokes the 1920s and 30s. What looks like a painting by Braque on the left is actually a picture viewed through two separate windows. Through the window on the right, you can see the dining terrace.
 

We were a party of seven, and we had a wonderful evening. The food was gorgeous, mainly fish, and beautifully presented. The lemon soufflé for dessert was heavenly! I couldn't resist taking my camera out to help me remember all the lovely art deco details, and the way each corner is designed to evoke the atmosphere of the Jazz Age.
 
 
 

Monday, 18 July 2016

A sense of place


I never set out to write novels that were particularly known for their sense of place. I set out to write stories that rang true and that transported the reader into another place and time, drawn into authentic surroundings, experiencing what my characters were seeing and hearing, smelling and tasting.
 
As Simone de Beauvoir tells us in her autobiographical Force of Circumstance: “I do not mention the colour of the sky, the taste of a fruit, out of self-indulgence (…). Not only do [these details] allow us to apprehend a period and a person in flesh and blood, but by their non-significance they are the very touch of truth in a true story.”
 
This is the start of a guest post I wrote for Karen at My Reading Corner. If you'd like to read the rest, please hop over to her blog on this link. The photo above is of one of the lovely, yet abandoned buildings facing the marina in Faro in Portugal, setting for 300 Days of Sun.
 

Sunday, 10 July 2016

A tough ask

 

It's always tricky when you put your book in front of reviewers who know far more than you do about a key component of your work. But it has to be done, as a kind of test. So I couldn't be happier that the verdict from the Algarve Blog is a resounding thumbs up for the setting and story of 300 Days of Sun.
 
"She has a brilliant way of describing minute details which bring a place to life, and makes you feel as if you are really sat in a local Portuguese café drinking a rich bica coffee and conversing with the locals."
 
You can read more on the Algarve Blog, and be charmed by the southern Portuguese backdrop in Alyson and David Sheldrake's fabulous photography and atmospheric posts. The following three photos are (c) Algarve Blog, reproduced here with permission.
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

300 Days of Sun: Behind the book

 
I am always inspired to write by the places I visit and Faro, on the southern coast of Portugal, was no exception. I had never been there before, though I knew the name from a hundred airport departure boards, as the hub for tourists travelling to the Algarve. My daughter Madeleine, then seventeen, was taking a Portuguese language course in the town. She and I were charmed from the first evening, by its mosaic pavements, by the laid-back atmosphere in the August heat, by the sea and the glimpses of green salt marsh. In the afternoons, we found various ways to get to the beaches and islands – and the first time we went to Praia de Faro, thanks to churning winds offshore, we did find the sea curiously green and furry.

For all the geographical accuracy of my portrayal of Faro, the town in this book is an imaginary version, and all aspects of the story are fiction. However, certain elements, like great storm of February 1941 and the re-opening of the Café Alianҫa during the local elections (held, in real life, in 2013), are superficially true. The storks' nests on dizzying ledges, as below, are also a characteristic feature.

 
It would be disingenuous to pretend that the heartbreaking disappearance of four-year-old Madeleine McCann from Praia da Luz in 2007 had no influence on this story, but what set off my narrative was a TV report of renewed investigative efforts to find her several years after the event. A woman who lived locally was being interviewed, and she was angry. “Why all the interest in this one case?” she asked. “There have been others too, you know. What about them?” It was an unkind reaction, I thought, but intriguing. Although I watched out for the next broadcast of the story, and the possibility that this woman’s implication had been followed up, she did not feature again.

I wondered why these questions were not pursued further. Perhaps the reporter hadn’t been able to find out more in the time. Perhaps the implications were too large, too unwieldy. It struck me that sometimes important questions are never answered. Sometimes they are uncomfortable, or not politically expedient. Worst of all, events might be deemed too long ago to matter. An old story: the most damning dismissal a news editor can give. But what are the families who have lost children in this way to do? Of course they will continue in their quests to rescue them, or to know what happened.
 
 
Running through this novel are questions about identity. It’s an issue that can be hard enough to answer in normal circumstances. But what happens if a child grows to adulthood and discovers he is not the person he thought he was? A personal history is undermined, shown to be misleading at best, psychologically shattering at worst.

And there are other ways for a person to become someone different. One is by living in a foreign country. This particularly interests me, as I was moved across Europe and Asia so many times as a child, that the simple question, “Where do you come from?” has no simple answer. Each different country left an imprint and memories of home. For Alva, in wartime Lisbon, the moment she changes her perception is when she realises that her husband has no intention of taking her “home” to America.


Crossing borders is a theme that threads through the story. During war, national borders are threatened by invading armies; they must hold to keep the illusion of safety. Historically, Portugal was a nation defined by her navigators and mariners who took to the seas to explore the globe. Present-day Faro has constant movement of planes and trains and cars and boats; the students taking the language course are looking to expand their horizons and move on; Nathan and Joanna are always on the move, on ferry boats and cars and on foot.
 
 
In the past, Esta Hartford’s book depicts Alva’s flight into the unknown and how quickly some people can adapt when they have to. The same is true of Nathan. Yet there’s also a sense of unease. Assuming new ways of life, confounding expectations and finding the inner resources to do so are not easy. Borders reflect personal security and psychological boundaries. What one finds within them can often surprise – and perturb – but new countries, new homes, always open a new perspective on the world.

Above all, I hope you enjoy the escape into a fascinating and atmospheric place. Available at good bookshops and Amazon.
 
 
 
 

Thursday, 19 May 2016

300 Days of Sun: UK ebook news

 
Good news for UK readers: you can now download the ebook of 300 Days of Sun for only £2.99 from Amazon's Kindle store. If you don't have a Kindle device, there is a free download app that works for an iPad, as in the photo.
 
I'm trying a different publishing model over here this time. The HarperCollins luxury paperback from the US is available here, and I'm putting out the ebook independently. We'll see how it goes, but I'm quite excited. What else can you buy for £2.99? A very small glass of wine? Some good chocolate? Go on, treat yourself to a read!
 
Journalist Joanna Millard has traveled to the Portuguese town of Faro to escape an unhappy love affair and a stalled career. While attending language school, she meets Nathan Emberlin, a charming young man with a mysterious past. The two embark on an odyssey that will take them deep into Portuguese history, particularly the dark years during WWII. A deeply satisfying novel, a rich story with a strong feeling for time and place and the expert pacing of the best thrillers. Readers will appreciate Lawrenson’s ability to combine stunning atmosphere with a fascinating historical backstory.
— Starred Booklist review, USA
 
As in The Lantern and The Sea Garden, Lawrenson merges past and present, doubling identities and events to dazzling (and sometimes dizzying) effect. Set against the lush but corrupt coastal resorts of southern Portugal, the novel’s shadowy deeds seem only more dangerous in this sunny clime. While not as intense as Robert Wilson’s Portuguese thrillers, this novel is sure to please those who relish the untangling of crimes in exotic locales.
Library Journal, USA 
 
 

Friday, 15 April 2016

Lisbon in wartime

 

During the Second World War, Lisbon must have been a fascinating yet frightening and desperate place. As Hitler’s occupation swept across Europe, neutral (or supposedly neutral) Portugal became one of the Continent’s last escape routes. In an iconic image that many will recall, Lisbon was the transit point for Bergman’s Ilsa when she was waved off by Bogart’s Rick in the classic movie Casablanca, made in 1942.

When Ilsa arrived, like Alva Barton in The Alliance - the novel within 300 Days of Sun she would have found Lisbon a confusing city of dubious trades, conspiracy, and deception, and a hub of espionage. The Atlantic port was flooded with a million refugees, including Jews and Allied POWs who needed berths on passenger ships heading west. The American Export Lines shipping office was besieged. But there were also considerable numbers of foreigners coming to Lisbon with the intention of staying for various nefarious purposes—including large numbers of Nazi personnel.

However, despite the tensions, contemporary accounts of arriving in Portugal at that time by American and British writers describe a place of light and color and flowers, friendliness and generosity from the ordinary people—and profound normality after the horrors many had witnessed. The Portuguese welcomed the refugees with extraordinarily good grace. 
 
 
 
In July 1940, the New York Times Lisbon correspondent Alva E. Gaymon wrote vivid accounts of the swelling international population in a city that still retained the lights and luxuries of pre-war Paris. In the same month, Lilian Mowrer, the wife of notable US foreign correspondent Edgar Ansel Mowrer, who had been based in Paris, wrote of the city: “Lisbon, the port of good hope, from which they could escape from the Germans by Clipper, or ocean liner, or freighter, or tramp ship—anything that would take them away from a Europe that was rapidly becoming a prison.”
 
 
 Yet despite the glittering harbour on the Tagus estuary, the superficial joviality of the Portuguese who opened their doors, the fisherwomen who walked barefoot carrying their baskets on their heads, the nightclubs where jazz bands played or fado singers captured a mournful mood, all felt the unease of living in an authoritarian regime. Salazar’s Estado Novo—the New State— was watched over by a Gestapo-like secret police and a censored press. If the locals also seemed to sway with the winds of war, favouring the side that seemed to be winning, and welcomed the hard currency these people brought, who would blame them?

Even before the United States joined the war, American nationals arrived in a steady stream to work with Lisbon’s embassies and news agencies, working closely with the British in many cases. It soon became obvious that not all these hundreds of new staff were engaged in normal diplomatic work. Military and naval attachés gathered as much information as they could. Press officers crowded in. Teams of expert coders and decoders worked on sending and receiving communications around the clock. False identities and spies were two a penny. In a show of strength, US battleships put in to harbour – their crews were said to be the happiest foreigners in Lisbon, as they were the only ones certain of a passage out. 

As the guns of war raged elsewhere, the Allies and the Nazis faced each other every day in the squares and streets, cafés and restaurants of Lisbon. Passenger planes flew in from New York: the famous Pan Am clipper service, a luxurious flying boat that landed on the Tagus river. Noel Coward, travelling on propaganda work, called the aircraft: “a well-appointed bus that had become somehow embedded in the sky”. Meanwhile, on nearby Portella airfield, black-painted converted Nazi bombers were bringing in passengers from Berlin alongside scheduled flights from London.  
 
 
Lisbon, with its swirling sea mists and rumours, its mixture of grand architecture and twisting medieval streets, was a place of brittle glamor. Famous names passing through, helped on their way by well-wishers, or using their fame to promote the Allied cause, or in the process of making their names, included Antoine Saint-Exupéry, Marc Chagall, Arthur Koestler, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), Lord Mountbatten, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and scores of minor European royalty. Gone with the Wind star Leslie Howard was killed in 1943 when the airliner he was traveling in was shot down over the Bay of Biscay.

On the coast, the enemies sunbathed within earshot of each other and gambled together at the casino at Estoril, where the cream of European society, including royalty, was sitting out the war in sunshine and relative comfort. Across the roulette tables, under glittering chandeliers, as in the boulevards of Lisbon, Allied intelligence agents pitted their wits against the German Abwehr and Gestapo, each side trying to infiltrate and disrupt each other’s business by any means possible. Legendary secret agents like Garbo, real name Juan Pujol García, who played a double game for the British while apparently spying for the Nazis, made Lisbon their centre of operations.

The Hotel Palacio in Estoril (below)
 

For Hitler’s Germany had a pressing reason for sending agents to Portugal: the acquisition of the mineral tungsten. Tungsten, or wolfram, was a vital component in the manufacture of armour-piercing munitions, and the nearest deposits were mined in Portugal. The Nazis needed to cut deals with the Portuguese. But they were at an historic disadvantage, thanks to England’s status as Portugal’s oldest ally. These two countries had supported each other for 800 years and had the trade links to prove it, in port wine …and tungsten mining. Naturally, the Allies were equally determined to frustrate any Nazi bid for an element needed for arms manufacture. 

But the Portuguese, led by Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar were playing a dangerous game, walking the tightrope of neutrality. An intellectual economist, Salazar was known as “The Plainclothes Dictator” and had more in common ideologically with Hitler than with the Allies. The gold the Nazis offered in payment for tungsten was hard to resist for a poor country that was vulnerable to invasion either from Germany or Franco’s Spain – and Salazar did not resist taking it. Both sides put pressure on him, and made their deals, politically as well as economically. 

Even before the United States joined the war, Americans were involved in humanitarian organizations in Lisbon. An early presence was the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker endeavor working for peace and the relief of suffering. The Lisbon office director was Philip Conrad, and his assistant Howard Wriggins would go on to become a distinguished US diplomat and academic.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – known to most in Lisbon simply as “The Joint” – worked tirelessly from the start, too. Its head was a rabbi with a doctorate from Yale, Joseph J Schwartz, who had been in Europe when the war began. He set up headquarters in the city in June 1940 and set about finding food and shelter for the desperate and displaced in the first instance, and paperwork and transport across the Atlantic in the second.

In October 1942, a group of thirty American women, all officially involved in child welfare, arrived in Lisbon on a Portuguese liner with the purpose of escorting one thousand French children to America and safety in the care of temporary foster families. But the invasion of North Africa and the occupation of the former free zone of the South of France meant that the children’s escape route was blocked. In a further tragedy, one of the women, Hazel Helen Mackay, of the Children’s Welfare Foundation in New York, disappeared from the dangerous sea cliff of Boca do Inferno – the Mouth of Hell – near Cascais. Only her shoes and handbag remained.

On the offensive, newspaper reporters from all countries were engaged in a ruthless game of black propaganda as well as information gathering. Disinformation games began, with British newspapers made up for sale in Lisbon carrying stories that would unsettle the Nazis and feed false leads.

Voice of America and the popular radio commentator Elmer Davis entered the fray in June 1942. Hollywood led the way in challenging for hearts and minds in more subtle ways by providing many of the movies that played in the cinemas.


Journalist Marya Mannes was a later arrival. She had been an editor for Vogue magazine in her native New York before moving to Italy in the 1930s with her husband. In the teeth of war, the couple had returned to the United States. He was soon a navy pilot and she used her editorial skills to gather information about the situation across Europe from the refugees who had made it across the Atlantic. From this, she moved into intelligence work, being trained as a spy for the Secret Intelligence Branch of the OSS.
 
She was sent to the Lisbon station just before the D-Day landings in June 1944. Her cover was that she was working as a reporter for The New Yorker, and indeed she did produce several Letters from Lisbon, but her brief was to mingle in the city, keeping alert for any promising information and swapping gossip with the other foreign correspondents. So credible was she simply as a glamorous magazine writer – she was tall, blonde and beautiful – that she would even tell men who asked what she was doing in Portugal, “I’m an international spy, of course!”

Eventually, as the war swung in favor of the Allies, the most crucial deal was negotiated by Churchill and the old ally England: the use of the Portuguese islands in the mid-Atlantic, the Azores, as a forward base for the United States Air Force. Portugal emerged one of the winners after the war, too. Salazar’s shrewd trade in wolfram saw the country’s balance of trade deficit go from $40 million in the red in 1939 to a $68 million surplus in 1944. A significant amount of that can be accounted for by payment from the German Reichsbank to the Banco do Portugal of 124 tons of Nazi gold. 
 
* The photo at the top of the page comes from my Instagram review of Ronald Weber's excellent book, The Lisbon Route.
 
 
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