A mesmerizing novel that 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 Joanna soon realizes that behind the crumbling facades of Moorish buildings 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 more than two decades ago.
Joanna’s subsequent search leads her to Ian Rylands, an English expat who cryptically suggests 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.
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks (April 12, 2016)
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks (April 12, 2016)
There are things that I expect from a Deborah Lawrenson book after discovering her through TLC Book Tours of her first two books, The Lantern (set in Provence) and The Sea Garden, (set on a Mediterranean Island off the French Coast). When describing her writing, I always fall back on the word "lush." There are the beautiful and lush locations she writes about and the lush way she describes them that makes a reader feel as though there is a touch of sun on their face and they are smelling the sea air, hearing the cries of the birds, seeing the local flowers and foliage, and tasting the delicious food. There is also that Gothic literature feeling that her writing evokes--knowing that beneath all that beauty, especially in the crumbling corners of old buildings and ruins, there lurk secrets, mystery and menace. 300 Days of Sun does not disappoint, in fact I found it to be more of a pulse pounder than the first two books and it had me turning the pages with a sense of anticipation and dread to learn the secrets of tiny seaside Faro, Portugal--both in World War II and those carried on to present day--and find out just how it was all woven together.
The story goes back and forth from present day Faro, where recently-unemployed journalist Joanna is staying while completing a Portuguese language course and meets Nathan, a younger man with a mystery that he seeks her help in solving. As she begins to investigate, a British expat she meets suggests that she read a novel written by an American woman about her experiences in Faro and nearby Lisbon during World War II. At first Joanna doesn't see a connection between the book and Nathan's mystery, but the probing that she and Nathan do into the past seems to be digging up trouble, danger and even murder. The back and forth in time and the story within a story work well here as it kept me guessing and wondering throughout the book. I am a fan of wartime fiction, particularly World War II, and as in The Sea Garden, Lawrenson has taken a country where I didn't know much about the effects of the war on the citizens and expats that lived there and given an interesting perspective with her detailed research of the political issues, spying, and intrigue that occurred. But, even if you are not typically a fan of historical fiction don't shy away from 300 Days of Sun as it is a excellent mix of mystery and romance, modern day and history, and she tosses in some travel writing to wrap it all in a setting that will make you carry it outside to your lanai, just to feel the sun on your face and to warm any goosebumps that might pop up as the tension builds.
Author Notes: Deborah Lawrenson studied English at Cambridge University and worked as a journalist in London. She is married with a daughter, and lives in Kent, England. Deborah’s previous novels include The Lantern and The Sea Garden.
Find out more about Deborah at her website, read more at her blog, and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.
Although not a food-centered book, it would be hard not to visit a seaside town in Portugal without food playing a role and Lawrenson writes food with as much lush detail as in the scenes she sets. Whether reading about the "aromatic cloud of strong coffee" at the local cafe, or how "the air was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara that fell like a sprinkling of paprika powder over the town's white sills and ledges," I found I was frequently hungry while reading. There were mentions of tiny almond pastries and custard tarts, fried donuts on the beach, plates of cubed white cheese and olives, carafes of Vinho Verde, tosta (toast with cheese), pizza, imported biscuits, whiskey, stollen, cakes and marzipan in wartime Lisbon, sweet sticky carob and honey-and-almond cakes, piri-piri chicken, omelette, oranges and orange trees, a pomegranate, dried figs, and apricots, cherry liqueur, flakes of white sea salt raked by a salt panner, and of course the seafood--clams, octopus, dried cod,"sardines grilling on charcoal fires" and other"delicate fish dishes."
When choosing a book-inspired dish, I was drawn to the description of a wartime fish dinner in Faro from the novel within the story, cooked by a fisherman's wife and consisting of white fish with preserved pimento and potato. Although I couldn't quite find a recipe that sounded like it online, I opened the pages of my favorite (OK, maybe only, ... but still favorite) Portuguese cookbook, Piri Piri Starfish by the amazing Tessa Kiros. (If this review has you wanting an armchair trip to Portugal and some of the delicious food, I recommend you go to Amazon, order 300 Days of Summer and then toss in a copy of the gorgeous Piri Piri Starfish--you will be swept away!) ;-)
I have been wanting to make the fried tuna recipe from Piri Piri Starfish for quite a while now and found some nice local tombo ahi (white ahi)--see fish sourcing notes below. Since I am not eating gluten at the moment and did not have GF breadcrumbs, I toasted and ground sliced almonds and coated my tuna lightly with them for the crust. To get potatoes into the mix, I picked Tessa's boiled potatoes tossed with olive oil and coarse salt--thinking of Alva in the book within a book, who stops to watch a man raking white crystals on the beach and he gives her a taste to show her it is sea salt.
Fried Tuna with Tomatoes & Onions
Adapted from Piri Piri Starfish by Tessa Kiros (and at the L.A. Times)
about 5 Tbsp olive oil, divided
2 garlic cloves, peeled and slightly squashed1 (14 oz) can good chopped tomatoes or 4 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
salt and pepper
2 onions, thinly sliced (I used local sweet Maui onions)
3 Tbsp white wine vinegar
2 thick tuna steaks, halved crosswise
dry breadcrumbs (I used sliced almonds, toasted and ground)
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a pan, add the garlic and cook until aromatic. Add the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes until the tomatoes are tender and release their juices. If necessary, add a few tablespoons of water to thin out the sauce slightly so it isn't too thick (there should still be rustic lumps of tomatoes in it). Remove the garlic, taste and adjust seasoning as needed and set aside, covered, in a warm place
In a large frying pan, heat the remaining oil over medium heat and sauté the onions. Season and cook until soft and golden, turning with a wooden spoon occasionally to ensure none are burning. Add the vinegar and simmer until it is just absorbed. Tilt the pan, keeping the onion-flavored oil to one side (you'll use this to cook the tuna). Lift out the onions with a slotted spoon, set aside and keep warm.
Rinse the tuna and pat dry with paper towels. Season with a bit of salt. Place the breadcrumbs (or ground almonds) on a plate then coat the tuna on both sides. Add a little more oil, if needed, to the onion oil in the pan and place over medium-high heat. When hot, add the tuna and fry until a deep golden brown crust has formed underneath. Flip the tuna and cook the other side. (I like my tuna on the rare-in-the-center side so I should have cooked it about 1 and 1/4 minutes per side and ended up about 2 min per side.)
Divide the onions evenly among plates; place a piece of tuna on top of each. Top with the tomato sauce. Scatter with parsley; serve with crispy fried or boiled potatoes.
Potatoes with Coarse Sea Salt & Rosemary
From Piri Piri Starfish by Tessa Kiros
(Adapted to Serve 2-4)
2 lbs new potatoes/baby potatoes, scrubbed, skins on, halved if large
2 Tbsp roughly chopped rosemary leaves + extra to garnish
1 large red or white onion, roughly chopped
1 heaped tsp coarse sea salt
about 1/4 cup good olive oil
Bring the potatoes, rosemary, and onions to the boil in a large, unsalted pot of water. Lower the heat slightly and cook until potatoes are soft but not falling apart and rosemary is tender.
Drain potatoes into a bowl and scatter with the salt, black pepper to taste and olive oil. Mix gently so the potatoes don't break up too much. Garnish with a couple of sprigs of rosemary. Serve warm or cold.
Notes/Results: Two fabulous Tess Kiros recipes! The tuna dish had such excellent flavor with the sweetness of the lightly caramelized onions and tomato sauce, contrasting with the acidity of the vinegar--it just popped in the mouth. I will admit to getting the tuna a shade past done to my liking. (I prefer the outside seared and the inside bright pink--aka mostly raw) but with the browning of the almond crusts I was about 45 seconds too long on each side and my fish center was lightly pink. Still, the fish was moist and tender and I enjoyed every bite. The potatoes were also perfectly tender and the bits of salt (I used a mix of fleur de sol and a pink Hawaiian alaea salt), rosemary, and olive oil were just right and great with the tuna. This is probably one of my favorite book/inspired dish pairings of late! I would happily make both dishes again.
Fish Sourcing Notes: I try to eat fish a couple of times a week and I try to buy as much locally sourced and sustainable fish as possible--but it is hard to be sure just what you are getting, the quality, and the effect on the waters being fished. I got an opportunity to sit in on the practice runs of a new Waikiki restaurant, Mahina & Suns at the new Surfjack Hotel & Swimclub. Lucky me! I mention it because Mahina & Suns is Chef Ed Kenney's fourth eatery on Oahu. If you don't know Ed Kenney, you have not been reading your food media recently as his eclectic restaurants and “local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always” mantra seem to be everywhere these days with the increasing popularity of Hawaiian cuisine. My entire meal was delicious (you can see the rest of the meal and cocktails on my Instagram page) but the standout was the 'Ahi Palaha'--white tombo ahi on a 12-grain rice salad with shaved cucumber and carrot, pickled mushrooms, pistachios and an amazing limu (seaweed) salsa verde (shown in the upper right corner of the picture collage below).
My server Max gave me a Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch pocket guide for Hawaii and mentioned that all four of Kenney's restaurants are certified as "good choice restaurants" for fish they serve. Makes me feel good about my dinner and renews my commitment to sustainable and responsible buying choices. My tuna for this post is local tombo from Pacific waters although I am not sure if it was pole and line (excellent choice) or longline (good choice) but either way, I can feel good about my home-cooked dinner too. (And I am definitely going back for more Ahi Pahala!)
I am linking this post up at I Heart Cooking Clubs where it is Potluck Week! Our chance to make any dish from current featured chef Curtis Stone, or any dish from one of the previous IHCC featured chefs like Tessa Kiros. You can see what dishes and chefs everyone chose by checking out the picture links on the post.
And, I'm also linking up this review and recipe to the Weekend Cooking event at Beth Fish Reads, a weekly event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. For more information, see the welcome post.
Note: A review copy of "300 Days of Sun" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.
You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.