Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Exciting news!

Thrilled to be able at last to share some great news...a new two-book deal with HarperCollins in the USA and Orion in the UK. But there's a twist! I'm writing with my husband Rob, aka The Panto King for long-time readers of this blog.
It started just as a bit of fun, but working on it was so enjoyable that it soon took on a life of its own. Here's the premise:
"Introducing Penelope Kite, less femme fatale than a fatal combination of Agatha Raisin and Bridget Jones, as she investigates a ...mystery in the beautiful setting of A Year in Provence. The first in a series of cosy detective novels featuring Penelope and her circle of local friends and acquaintances, set in recognisable locations in the South of France."
So I hope that appeals. These books will be rather different from the previous ones: the lush locations will all be there, but alongside banter, good humour and comic moments to lighten the dark deeds that Penelope uncovers. Can't wait to share more when I'm able to!
How far we have come from these two merry undergraduates at Cambridge all those years ago. And miraculously still on speaking terms after a no-holds-barred final editing session...

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Provence: by the sea

The end of high summer in Provence means now is the time to set out for the beach. La Rentrée has seen off families with children who must return to school and soon the university students will be making for home too. Only the older or childless holidaymakers remain to share the sea and the sun with the locals.
Our preferred part of the coast stretches from Toulon to La Ciotat. Not the smartest on the French Riviera, but full of charm and the French themselves, which is always a recommendation. The photo shows Bandol, which has a line of beaches, each different in character. This is the seaward side of the sheltered Anse de Renecros, where the horseshoe bay is a perfect swimming lagoon.
There are plenty of cafés and restaurants serving fish and salads nicoises - and, of course, the famously good Bandol rosé wine is not to be missed.
I'm very fond of Sanary-sur-Mer, too, just along the coast towards Toulon. It has one of the prettiest seafront marinas and promenades of the whole of the south of France. Again, not conspicuously smart but friendly and relaxed, with plenty to do and see. 
And then there's lovely Cassis and La Ciotat, which looks so unpromising from a distance, with what seems to be an industrial zone where it butts up against the hills. The towering cranes turn out to be part of a yacht builders and chandlery and, again, it's a pretty town with good beaches.
If this has made you want to prolong summer with a spot of armchair travel to the sea, you might like 300 Days of Sun. You can find out more in this Q & A I wrote for Anne Bonny Book Reviews. 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

How book blogging has changed

In the year (and a bit) since 300 Days of Sun came out, I've been thrilled by some of the lovely reviews and messages I've received about it. Much of this has been on the newer, faster social media such as Instagram and Facebook, but this post is a shout-out for the stalwart bloggers who keep going, crafting longer, more detailed and insightful pieces about books and writing.
I know from hard experience that it's tough to maintain a great blog, and keep it fuelled with entertaining and worthwhile posts, especially when you are trying to write a book on the side! I began this blog in December 2010, and the best content dates from mid-2011 when I got into my stride, to around 2014. It simply takes a lot more effort to write a short essay than it does to share a photo with a few lines on IG.
Luckily, arts and book bloggers are both dedicated and made of steely stuff. They have to be. For just as publishing has changed in the past ten years, so has the nature of book blogging. It used to be a glorious, idiosyncratic free-for-all. Bloggers were delighted to be approached direct by a lateral-thinking author with a new novel to promote. Most of them hadn't yet been sucked into the marketing machine that sees bloggers as a cheap and very effective way of harnessing the power of reader-to-reader recommendations.
Nine years ago, when I was disappointed in the efforts of my then-publishers to get coverage for my novel Songs of Blue and Gold, I determined to go my own way. I discovered some fantastic British bloggers like Cornflower and Tales from the Reading Room, and whizzed off emails to them. It was such a rewarding experience. I can't think of anyone who didn't reply, sometimes within hours, or offer to review. Some of them became my first online friends, and some I met and we became offline friends, too.
Now, there are rules of engagement. Publishing publicists have lists of bloggers and blog tours, and what is still technically an amateur pursuit has a frighteningly professional edge. Bloggers are no longer simply happy readers, but suffering burn-out with too many books to get through and provide reviews. Bloggers worry about upsetting publishers (no more free advance reading copies of big books) and authors alike. Stress increases as the TBR mounts. More books are published, and schedules fill.
A consequence is that writers are often asked to produce guest blogs - which is great, don't get me wrong, as these often give you exposure to a new set of readers - but this does mean that there's even less time for the writer to create good content for his or her own blog.
When these work, though, it's a win-win situation. A blog I've admired for a long time, and greatly enjoyed working with is Trip Fiction, which is perfect for the kind of books I write, which have a strong sense of place and recognisable setting. Here's the link to the piece I wrote about Portugal and 300 Days of Sun.  
And then there's the pure joy of finding a review by a blogger who obviously went out and bought your book and just liked it, then thought he'd write a blog review. How great is that?
"Part romance, part thriller, part history lesson, 300 Days of Sun: A Novel will leave the reader entranced and wishing for more. It’s a sensualist adventure with an ever-present malevolent edge and by the time it’s over, you’ll be a little bit smarter and a lot more aware of life’s lovely but dangerous possibilities You’ll also be mightily impressed with Deborah Lawrenson, and her graceful ability to make the English language flow and shimmer."
Available from all good booksellers and Amazon

Sunday, 30 July 2017

A Good Year - take two, in Gordes

In the decade or so since Ridley Scott's "local" movie A Good Year was released to less than ecstatic critical acclaim and box office success, something rather extraordinary has happened. It had become everyone's favourite sun-drenched, feel-good Luberon comfort film. People in the villages featured still talk about the making of it, and Russell Crowe gossip snakes around. My own piece about it has been my most popular blog post for years.
So I can never pass the restaurant in the corner of the Place du Château at Gordes without being reminded of Max and Fanny, so beautifully played by Marion Cotillard. Gordes is a stunning place anyway, but this is just an extra dusting of stardust.
Sadly, though the atmosphere of the real life "Fanny's Café" is indelible, the restaurant under current management is not getting good reviews, and the crowds are staying away from its tables. We went to La Trinquette, tucked away down a precipitous street, the Rue des Tracapelles, and it was fantastic, with glorious views over the Petit Luberon.
Afterwards, a brilliant concert of operatic arias and Lieder starring Elsa Dreisig at the Théatre des Terrasses. The cobbled alleys down from the main square showcase the height of the village above the valley - and give a sweeping view of a great number of other locations used in A Good Year, including the Château la Canorgue at Bonnieux, the Provencal dream of a house and vineyard that Max inherits.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Rupert Brooke at Penshurst

Penshurst 1907
In July 1909, Rupert Brooke came to Penshurst, in Kent, on a camping trip with a group of friends. In a meadow close to the River Eden, they recreated days and nights at Grantchester with daring mixed swimming in the river, poetry recitals and romantic entanglements.
Among the young campers were three of the Olivier sisters, Bryn, Daphne and Noel, whose family lived at nearby Limpsfield Chart. They were cousins of the famous actor Sir Laurence Olivier, and Bryn and Noel, in particular, were charismatic beauties. Bryn and another sister, Margery, were part of Rupert’s famous Cambridge set. It was at Penshurst that Rupert Brooke fell deeply in love with Noel, the youngest (pictured, Brooke right). He had been pursuing her since they first met when she was still a schoolgirl at Bedales, and on this trip, she seemed to return his feelings.
Another of the friends was 17-year-old David “Bunny” Garnett, neighbour of the Oliviers at Limpsfield - he would become a prolific author and member of the Bloomsbury Group, and would write the novella Aspects of Love. He had chosen the pitch, ‘across the river from the imposing edifice of Penshurst Place’. But where exactly was the site of this camp? Remembering these summer days and nights, David Garnett wrote:

‘When we reached Penshurst we found a little road crossing the river Eden and above a narrow old bridge was a wider pool with water lilies, in which we bathed. Nearby was a little weirhouse over the river.’
There are four bridges over the rivers at Penshurst, which is in a valley at the confluence of the Medway and the Eden. Three of them have views of Penshurst Place, the stately historic birthplace of the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney. The question was, which one was it that saw the friends diving from the wall, as described by Garnett?
"On Sunday morning the rustics of Penshurst came down and leant in a line upon the parapet of the bridge, staring into the pool in which we were to bathe.
   “Come on,” said Daphne, “They’re not going to stop us.”
   Nor did they. We bathed, ignoring them, and Noel, not to be put off from her high dives, picked her way along the parapet between the rows of wrists and elbows, politely asked for standing room in the middle, and made a perfect dive into the pool. With florid expressionless face, the nearest labourer shook his black Sunday coat-sleeve free of the drops which had fallen from her heel."
I think the bridge over the Eden must be the one on the coach road up to Watstock Farm and Hever.
The long, tranquil field behind lies close by alongside the Salman’s Farm road, and offers a surprisingly fine view of Penshurst Place across the meadows. It seems a perfect – and relatively discreet – spot for a party of young men and women camping together in what, in the eyes of many Edwardians, would have been a shockingly free-spirited display of unconventionality.
If you want to see it, cross the bridge in the direction of Salman’s Farm, the field is immediately on the left. Downstream, very close by, an old shallow weir still splashes into a wide pool in the river, though the weir house has been replaced by a modern gauging station (the red brick structure at the bottom right of the photo). This picture was taken with a zoom lens that has shortened the real distances. This is what remains of the shallow weir.

David Garnett recalled the scene:
 "…soon we were sitting round the blazing fire, Noel’s eyes shining in welcome for the new arrivals and the soft river water trickling from her hair down her bare shoulders. And on the white shoulders, shining in the firelight, were bits of duck weed, which made me love them even more. The moon rose full. Soon we crawled back into our sleeping bags and slept, but Rupert, I believe, lay awake composing poetry."

Days and nights passed in walking, swimming, eating and talking. At night, they swam naked by the light of a bicycle lamp. Rupert had been pursuing both Noel from a distance for many months, and they finally had a chance to be alone together on a riverbank walk.
The Bathers, woodcut by Gwen Raverat (1885-1957) another of Rupert Brooke’s Cambridge friends, who took part in the Granchester night swimming parties. 

                                         The Hill by Rupert Brooke (1909)

                               Breathless, we flung us on the windy hill,
                               Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.
                               You said "Through glory and ecstasy we pass;
                               Wind, sun, and earth remain, and birds sing still,
                               When we are old, are old...." "And when we die
                               All's over that is ours; and life burns on
                               Through other lovers, other lips" said I,
                               "Heart of my heart, our heaven is now, is won!"
                               "We are Earth's best, that learnt her lesson here.
                               Life is our cry. We have kept the faith!" we said;
                               "We shall go down with unreluctant tread
                               Rose-crowned into the darkness!"... Proud we were,
                               And laughed, that had such brave true things to say.
                               —And then you suddenly cried, and turned away.

After this idyllic interlude in Penshurst, the poet’s love for Noel Olivier endured, becoming almost obsessive. Yet he was distracted by other relationships - notably with Ka Cox - and unable to commit to her. The steely and self-sufficient Noel was coolly unimpressed by his confusions. Her eventual resolve that she did not love him caused Brooke to write her an enraged letter in 1912:
“You lie, Noel. You may have persuaded yourself you don’t love me, or engineered yourself into not loving me, now. But you lie when you say you never did & never could. You did – Penshurst & Grantchester & a thousand times. I know you did; & you know it. And you could.”
Noel qualified as a doctor in 1917, becoming a paediatrician. She married and had five children, before belatedly falling in love with James Strachey, another of Rupert’s Bloomsbury set friends, and brother of Lytton Strachey. In their forties, Noel and James embarked on a passionate affair that lasted nearly a decade.

Rupert Brooke died of sepsis caused by an infected mosquito bite in April 1915, on a ship in the Aegean Sea, bound for Gallipoli. Brooke (1887-1915) was known as “the handsomest young man in England” and he was already famous for his neo-Romantic poems when he enlisted to fight in World War One. His death at twenty-seven only added to his reputation and idealised image, allied to his lyrical nostalgia for the English countryside. He was buried on the Greek island of Skyros.
                                     The Soldier by Rupert Brooke (1914) 

                                IF I should die, think only this of me: 
                                That there's some corner of a foreign field 
                                That is forever England. There shall be 
                                In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; 
                                A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, 
                                Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, 
                                A body of England's, breathing English air, 
                                Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home. 
                                And think, this heart, all evil shed away, 
                                A pulse in the eternal mind, no less 
                                Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; 
                                Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; 
                                And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, 
                                In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

"But what are they eating?"

I was delighted to be asked this question by US blogger and writer Shelley Workinger, about my characters Eve and Dom in The Lantern. With some relish, I supplied what I hope is a lip-smacking answer in a guest post over on her foodie matters and book blog But What Are They Eating?

Food is a vital part of Eve and Dom’s sensuous life in the South of France. The naïve translator and the worldly older man connect on an instinctive level that seems - at first - set apart from the bleak realities of the lives they are both trying to escape. They fall in love and move into a crumbling Provencal hamlet, set apart on a hillside, where they lose themselves in the heat and light, in music and the imagination – and the fruits of the landscape.
That summer the house and its surroundings became ours, a time reduced in my memory to separate images and impressions: mirabelles, the tart orange plums like incandescent bulbs strung in forest green leaves, a zinc-topped table under a vine canopy; the budding grapes; the basket on the table, a large bowl; tomatoes ribbed and plump as harem cushions. 
You can read the whole piece by following the link to But What Are They Eating?
The photo was taken at the time I was writing The Lantern, and so has the tang of absolute authenticity. It's late summer and the table is laid for dinner outside the music room. In the winter, we eat in the kitchen, or if guests are invited, we set up a table in the sitting room. If I were to imagine Eve and Dom hosting an October supper party, the menu might follow one of ours that proved a great success with local friends:
Spicy butternut squash soup
Turkey escalope with a chestnut and mushroom cream sauce
Steamed syrup pudding
It was seasonal, which the French always appreciate, and the classic English pudding went down a storm - though I did make it as light as possible! Served with a restrained amount of crème anglaise, custard, for the full experience.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Durrells and Corfu


The Durrells are back on Sunday evening TV, bickering and creating mayhem against the heavenly backdrop of Corfu. Simon Nye’s adaptation is gorgeous escapism, much as the island was for the real Durrells in the years before the second world war. And the tales it spins are about as misleading.

Some years ago I became so fascinated by the family, and elder brother Larry in particular, that I wrote a novel inspired by his traveller’s life – and four wives along the way. I loved Gerard Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals from the moment I opened it aged about eleven. It was the funniest book I had ever read, and Gerald’s vicious yet loving lampoon of writer Larry sparkled in a glittering sea of hilarious set pieces, the 'diminutive blond firework' by turns pompously literary and infuriated by marauding beasts and insects.

But as ever with the Durrells, the truth was never allowed to get in the way of a good story. As sister Margo once said: “I never know what’s fact and what’s fiction in my family.”

To read more, please hop over to Katherine Sunderland's BiblioManiac blog. This is the opening of a guest post I've written for her.
I'm still fascinated by the Durrell family, their books, adventures and the truth behind the stories, and have recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Michael Haag's The Durrells of Corfu. It's a great overview of their real lives, with some poignant new photos that have never been released before, though it doesn't reveal much of the darker, and possibly most fascinating aspects of their stories. Still well worth reading if you're loving the TV series, and I bet you'll want to find out more...
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