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 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.
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