Monday, July 16, 2012

The Real Housewives of Windsor: Sophie, Countess of Wessex

It’s hard to believe that it has been 13 years since Sophie Rhys-Jones walked down the aisle at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor and walked out as HRH, The Countess of Wessex. From the beginning, Sophie seemed determined to do things differently than previous Windsor Wives and for a while it looked like she might succeed. She was going to be a working wife, continuing to pursue her career in PR, while fulfilling royal duties as needed. She even talked of putting of having royal offspring while she and Edward enjoyed married life. Over the past 13 years, Sophie has weathered a host of storms including infertility, racy photos, questions about her business and a tabloid scandal that rocked the monarchy but Sophie came through relatively unscathed and has even taken the former Kate Middleton under her wing to teach her the ropes.

When her relationship with Prince Edward was first revealed to the public, Sophie was often compared to Princess Diana. Both were tall, leggy blondes with short hair and English rose complexions, close in age (Diana was born in 1961, Sophie in 1965), but the resemblance was only on the surface. While Diana came from an aristocratic background, Sophie came from a decidedly middle-class one. Her father, Christopher, was a successful retired tire salesman, and her mother Mary was a secretary. Sophie’s mother even took in typing at home to help send her and her brother David to Dulwich Preparatory School and then to West Kent College.

While Diana used to joke that she was “thick as a plank,” Sophie obtained 8 O-levels and 2 A-levels in English and Law. Diana’s parents famously split up when Diana was little; Sophie’s parents were happily married until her mother’s death in 2005. Before her marriage, Sophie trained as a secretary and had a successful career in public relations, while Diana flitted from one low-paying job after another. Diana was a very immature 20 years old when she married Prince Charles after a short courtship. Sophie was a mature woman of 34 who had dated her prince for over five years before she walked down the aisle at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Diana and Fergie’s family had royal connections stretching back centuries, Sophie’s only connection was that she was descended from the 1st Viscount Molesworth, a 17th century diplomat with links to the Stuart Kings of England and the Queen Mother, making Sophie and Edward cousins of sorts. While Diana had to contend with the continued presence of Camilla Parker-Bowles in her husband’s life, Sophie had to contend with rumors that Prince Edward was gay.

Sophie even met her Prince like other modern couples, through her job. The couple met at a strategy meeting to discuss The Real Tennis Challenge, an event to raise funds for the Duke of Edinburgh’s scheme in 1993. Sophie later ended up standing in for Sue Barker for the photo-call with Edward, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder. She expressed interest in the game of ‘real tennis’ (the version that Henry VIII would have played) which was Edward’s sporting passion. Intrigued, Edward asked her out. Somehow they managed to keep the relationship secret for three months before the tabloids found out.

To the royal family, Sophie must have seemed like a breath of fresh air. They were under pressure when she came on the scene. The monarchy was facing criticism from over everything from the Civil List, whether the Queen should pay taxes, as well as the disastrous marriages of the royal children. Sophie was neither a compassionate fashion icon like Diana nor a loose cannon like Sarah Ferguson. “You wouldn’t notice her in a crowd,” the Queen was overheard telling the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. Sophie was seen to be unthreatening, a mixture of solid middle-class conventionality mixed with media modernity. Colleagues from work described her as always game for a laugh and down to earth. The editor of OK! Magazine, one of her clients, said “She’s not a girl of extremes and that’s essential to her character. She’s a person who can cope.” Together Sophie and Edward seemed as sexy and exciting as bread pudding. Sophie got along with most of the Royal Family especially Prince Philip but also Princess Anne who had never befriended either of her two previous sisters-in-law. Princess Diana allegedly called Sophie, “little Miss Goody Two Shoes,” behind her back.

The couple announced their engagement their engagement in January of 1999. At the press conference, the couple held hands affectionately as they showed off Sophie’s ring. Unlike his older brother Prince Charles, who famously declared, ‘whatever in love means,’ Edward said, “We are the best of friends and we happen to love each other very much.’ When asked if she found the prospect of joining the Royal Family daunting, Sophie answered honestly, ‘It is slightly nerve-racking in many ways. But I am ready for it now and I am fully aware of the responsibilities.’ Sophie had time to get a good look at royal life over the past several years. She’d been invited to join the Queen for family holidays at Windsor, Balmoral and Sandringham. A blind eye was turned when Sophie spent the night with Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace. She was even given her own pass to come and go as she pleased. She became well acquainted with the “men in grey” who had made Diana and Fergie’s lives as Royals so difficult. Both Diana and Sarah were jealous that Sophie was getting special treatment they had been thrown to the wolves. Prince Edward had even taken the step of sending an open letter to the press asking that they back off of Sophie. Sophie seemed almost too good to be true.

Three weeks before wedding, the first scandal hit the headlines. London's biggest tabloid, The Sun, printed a topless picture of Sophie. What should have been a tempest in a teapot became a national uproar in the wake of Princess Diana's death, which was widely blamed on Fleet Street's disregard for royal privacy. The outcry was so enormous the tabloid Sun actually issued a groveling apology. The 11-year-old snapshot showed Sophie gallivanting with radio disc jockey Chris Tarrant during a 1988 business trip to Spain. At the time, Sophie was working for Capital Radio as a PR executive. The picture showed Tarrant pulling up a laughing Sophie’s bikini top, exposing one breast. The photographer, Kara Noble, was paid £40,000 for the photo but in the backlash after their publication, she was sacked from her job as a disc jockey. While the scandal was tame compared to the pictures of a topless Fergie having her toes sucked in the South of France, the publication signaled the end of the honeymoon between Sophie and the Press.

The nuptials of Sophie and Edward on June 19, 1999 were a much more low-key affair than his siblings’ weddings, which took place at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Since all three of those weddings ended in divorce, perhaps Prince Edward was hedging his bets by getting married at Windsor. Whatever the reason, Edward and Sophie had made it clear that their wedding was not to be a state occasion. On his wedding day, he was created The Earl of Wessex. Sophie’s new title would be HRH The Countess of Wessex. Eventually the plan was that after the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, Edward would inherit his father’s title. The wedding was attended by 560 guests and an estimated 200 million viewers around the world. Some commentators called it the “people’s wedding,” and 8,000 people were picked at random and invited into the castle grounds.

Unlike the over-the-top 80’s confections worn by Diana and Sarah, Sophie wore a simple dress made of hand-dyed silk organza and silk crepe, with long sleeves and the detail consists of rows of pearls and crystal beading around the neck, sleeves and train, with further beading down the back and front of the dress-coat. 325,000 cut-glass and pearl beads were sewn on the dress, which was corseted, with a V-neck. To accompany the dress, the bride also wore a black-and-white pearl necklace, interspersed with white gold rondels, and a matching pair of black-and-white pearl drop earrings, designed by Prince Edward and made by Asprey and Garrard as a wedding gift from Edward. Sophie wore a diamond tiara, from the Queen's private collection, consisting of three open-work scroll motifs, designed and re-modeled by the Crown Jeweler, David Thomas, at Asprey and Garrard.

Soon after their wedding, it was announced that the royal couple would be balancing their professional lives with their royal duties. The Queen was said to be behind the couple’s decision. The couple took a 150 year lease on the 57 room Bagshot Park in Surrey, paying £5 million pounds for a property that on the open market would be worth at least 6 times as much. It is one of the largest Royal homes; even Prince Charles’s beloved Highgrove is not as big. Prince Edward went back to work at the moderately successful production company that he’d started in 1993, Ardent Productions while Sophie continued on with her PR firm RJH. But from the beginning there were questions about whether royalty and commerce should mix. Even before the wedding, Sophie was accused of using her relationship with Edward to drum up business. The longer her romance with Edward continued, the more her career seemed to flourish.

Her critics said a big “I told you so,” when in 2001, an undercover reporter for the tabloid News of the World, Mazher Mahmood, posing as an Arab sheikh, recorded Sophie making disparaging remarks about Cherie Blair as "absolutely horrid, horrid, horrid" and criticized the prime minister's leadership style as "too presidential". It was also claimed that she boasted that she was the Royal family’s savior and calling the Queen ‘the old dear.’ It also appeared that Sophie was using her royal connections to drum up business. The story was picked up by the Daily Mail and other media outlets, humiliating the Countess. Although Buckingham Palace issued a statement suggesting that the reported comments were ‘selective, distorted and in several cases, flatly untrue,’ the damage was done. Sophie herself issued a statement that read, that she regretted the embarrassment she had caused after being taken in by the reporter's scheme. “I am deeply distressed by the carrying-out of an entrapment operation on me and my business but I also very much regret my own misjudgment in succumbing to that subterfuge.” For a supposedly smart and savvy business woman, it never seems to have occurred to Sophie to check out her new potential client. Landing such a lucrative account seemed to outweigh her common sense. Unlike Fergie who could at least claim alcohol as an excuse, Sophie drank nothing but mineral water during the meeting.

The news brought back memories of ‘Squidgygate’ and ‘Tampongate’ when the Wales’s phone calls were taped and then published in the tabloids. Sophie compounded her error by sending personal letters of apology to Blair, Hague and Prince Charles. The tabloid turned over the tapes to Buckingham Palace in exchange for a 5 page interview with Sophie, in which she discussed IVF & Edward’s sexuality. Instead of being a breath of fresh air, Sophie was in danger of been seen as no better than her predecessors. Her partner resigned but Sophie was hoping to ride it out but clients began to leave, outraged by publicity. Later that fall, Prince Edward got into trouble for filming at St. Andrew’s University as his nephew Prince William matriculated for a documentary. In 2002, both the Prince Edward and his wife announced that they would quit their business interests to focus on royal duties full time and to aid the Queen during her Golden Jubilee. To take some of the sting out having to give up their careers, the Queen increased the annual allowance to £250,000, essentially paying them not to work.

Sophie, by all accounts, was devastated at having to give-up the business that she had worked so hard at developing for a life of ribbon-cutting and garden parties at Buckingham Palace. She had founded RJH in 1996 with her business partner Murray Harkin, and had been a dedicated career woman before her marriage. The company had a prestigious client list that included the Lanesborough Hotel in London, Boodles & Dunthorne, Thomas Goode China, DFS Furniture chain, Rover Cars, and the Banyan Tree Hotel in Phuket, Thailand. According to an article in London’s The Daily Mail, the company was in talks to sell the business for £3.5 million (8 years later the company folded owing £1.7 million). However devastated she might have been, she also seemed resigned that if she wanted her marriage to work, she would have to make a success of her life as a royal instead. There were some who took great delight in her downfall, who felt that Sophie had developed a case of ‘red carpet fever’ when she married the Queen’s youngest son, that she got caught up with being a member of the Royal Family. She’d once remarked that she was the ‘second lady of the land’ and apparently had the attitude that went along with it.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Sophie also had problems conceiving. In December of 2001, Sophie was brought to King Edward VII Hospital after complaining that she didn’t feel well. It was soon discovered that she was suffering from an ectopic pregnancy. She lost both the baby and an ovary. Two years later, she went into premature labor, resulting from a placental eruption, giving birth to a daughter Lady Louse on November 8, 2003. Sophie had to have a caesarian, and it was touch and go for a while for both mother and daughter. She lost a considerable amount of blood, and was said to be 20 minutes away from death. And then their daughter, Louise, was born with extropia, an eye condition that left her with one eye turning outwards. Longing for a second child, the couple went through a number of unsuccessful IVF treatments, before conceiving their son James, Viscount Severn (born December 17, 2007), naturally after almost four years of trying. It was an emotionally devastating time for Sophie, who had to watch several women on staff at the Palace give birth, while she struggled to conceive. Neither children will either have or use the style HRH at their parents’ request. Both Sophie and Edward wish for them to have as normal an upbringing as possible.

Through it all, the Queen has been a huge supporter of Sophie. They share a strong bond and an interest in military history, and horses. Sophie is reportedly the first of The Queen’s daughters-in-law with home she has enjoyed a permanently warm relationship. While The Queen’s relationship with Camilla has thawed, they will never truly be close, and so far Prince Andrew has declined to remarry after his divorce from Fergie. The Queen even went so far as to pay a secret visit to Sophie when she was in the hospital after the traumatic birth of Lady Louise which was unprecedented. They became even closer after Sophie lost her mother to cancer in 2005. The Queen and Sophie take regular horseback rides around Windsor Great Park, and the Queen has even been known to pop around for tea at Bagshot Park unannounced. In 2010, Sophie was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. Honorees are chosen by the Queen personally for this honor rather than recommended by the Prime Minister.

Now 47, Sophie has proved to be a valuable member of the Royal Family. Unlike the Duchess of York who keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, but expecting a different result, Sophie learned from her earlier mistakes, and has not put a foot wrong since. She has even stepped it up fashion-wise in recent years, showing off a trimmer figure, and more stylish wardrobe of tall hats, and platform shoes. Articles in such diverse publications as Hello Magazine, The Telegraph and Majesty Magazine have all remarked on her transformation over the years. Another sign of how well thought of Sophie now is, she volunteered to take Kate Middleton under her wing, to show her the royal ropes after her engagement. She’s also become good friends with Princess Charlene of Monaco. Over the years, Sophie has been able to use her PR skills to good use to help the charities she’s patron of, including Born in Bradford research project, which investigates the causes of low birth weight and infant mortality.

Edward and Sophie are now the Queen’s go to Royals to represent her on overseas trips and at royal weddings. In 2011, they attended the wedding of Prince Albert II of Monaco to Charlene Wittstock. To celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, they traveled to the Caribbean as well as a controversial trip to Gibraltar. As the Queen and Prince Philip cut back on their engagements, Sophie and Edward will no doubt continue to have a high profile until Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge become full-time royals.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Gotham Gal Review: Paris My Sweet

Author:  Amy Thomas
Publisher:  Sourcebooks
Publication date: 2/1/2012
Pages: 304

Synopsis:  Forever a girl obsessed with all things French, sweet freak Amy Thomas landed a gig as rich as the purest dark chocolate: leave Manhattan for Paris to write ad copy for Louis Vuitton. Working on the Champs-Élysées, strolling the charming streets, and exploring the best patisseries and boulangeries, Amy marveled at the magnificence of the City of Light.

But does falling in love with one city mean turning your back on another? As much as Amy adored Paris, there was part of her that felt like a humble chocolate chip cookie in a sea of pristine macarons. PARIS, MY SWEET explores how the search for happiness can be as fleeting as a salted caramel souffle's rise, as intensely satisfying as molten chocolate cake, and about how the life you're meant to live doesn't always taste like the one you envisioned.

Part love letter to Paris, part love letter to New York, and total devotion to all things sweet, PARIS, MY SWEET is a treasure map for anyone with a hunger for life.
Amy Thomas is a New York—based writer who, for two lucky years, got to call Paris home. In addition to working as a copywriter in advertising, she writes about food, travel, design, and fashion for various publications such as the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Town & Country, and Every Day with Rachael Ray. She is slightly obsessed with sweets.

Gotham Gal says:  It was kind of cruel of Sourcebooks to send me a copy of Amy Thomas's memoir PARIS MY SWEET just after I'd given up sweets for Lent. Reading page after page of all the delectable treats she ate in Paris made me just want to lick the page! Like Amy, I especially adore dark chocolate. The old adage "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it," sprang to mind as I flipped through the pages.  Amy adores Paris and jumps at the chance to live there only to find out that living in Paris is far different from visiting Paris.

PARIS MY SWEET brought back memories of the time that I lived in London just after college.  Like Amy, my dream had alwyas been to live abroad, but in my case it was London.  I was lucky enough to be able to buy a six month student work permit which enabled me to work anywhere in the UK.  London wasn' t unfamiliar to me, I had spent 5 weeks the summer before my senior year of high school and a semester my junior year, but living and working there was far different from being a student.  Finding a flat was a struggle, particularly since I didn't want to elnd up living with Americans (I eventually did) nor was finding a job a breeze, even though I had office skills. The four months I spent during one incredibly hot summer were some of the most difficult, frustrating and yet exhilirating experiences of my life.

Unlike me, Amy got to work on the Louis Vuitton account for Ogilvy and Mather, although incredibly LVMH didn't give the ad agency a discount for employees to shop their. How rude! It would be too easy to hate Thomas for landing such a cushy job in the City of Light but she's such an engaging narrator, not afraid to share with the reader her hopes and frustrations, that it felt like listening to a close friend over a glass of Lillet in  small cafe near St. Germain. I sympathized with Amy as she spent 3 weeks having to living in a disgusting hotel near Montmartre (really Ogilvy, you couldn't have sprung for a corporate apartment?), jumped for joy when she found her dream flat, and sighed over her lack of dating prospects in Paris. I totally understood how torn she was between her new life in Paris and her old life in New York.

Her use of sweets, how both cities differ in their approach to dessert was refreshing. I especially enjoyed the section on cupcakes, from her earliest childhood memories, to how the French were interpreting an American classic.  The book is very much a lighthearted romp, leavened with doses of bittersweet medicine. There were times though when I wanted Thomas to dig deeper, to share more of her experiences in Paris. For example, the differences between healthcare in the US and France, anyone who has seen the Michael Moore film, remembers the scene of the ex-pat Americans raving about French healthcare and how they never want to leave Paris.  I also wanted to know more about what happened to her cat Milo, who developed bad patches.  It would have been nice if Thomas had shown us the scene where she lost it at work, rather than telling us about it later.

Final Verdict:  A look at the sweet side of life in New York and Paris. Don't read this book if you are on a diet!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hump Day Hottie: Ashley Cowie

Wow, it's been a long time since I've had a hump day hottie, but I just had to share my new discovery, Ashley Cowie. I was scrolling through the TV guide on my DVR when the show Legend Quest popped otu at me.  I've written about my love for the National Treasure movies, and this seemed like a unique combination of those movies and Dan Brown's novels. The first episode that I watched was about the Holy Grail. Sweet, I was eager to hear what he had to say compared to Dan Brown.

Well imagine my surprise when Ashley Cowie turned out to not only be a hottie but a Scottish hottie! Be still my heart.  He's also a member of the Scottish Knights Templar. I'm not sure what that means but it sounds awesome. The TV show didn't disappoint, although I had the feeling that Dan Brown must be sitting in his house, counting his money, thinking 'Wow, that's even crazier than what I came up with!" Cowie's Quest tooks him from Rosslyn Chapel to Providencetown Massachussets, to Washington, DC and finally to the Statue of Liberty where he concluded that it was possible that the Freemasons (because Lord knows they have their hands in everything) melted down the Holy Grail and used the metal to forge the original torch of the Statue of Liberty.  Are you with me?

That's almost insane enough to be believable.  The other episodes that I watched thanks to Syfy on demand includes the search for Merlin's grave, Moses' Staff, and the Stone of Destiny which they may actually have found. There were only six episodes in this first series, but hopefully Syfy will order more. There hasn't been a show this cool since Josh Bernstein's show Digging for the Truth on the History Channel or Brad Meltzer's crazy show.

But back to Mr. Cowie. He's a photographer and a self-taught historian (sort of like me).  Unfortunately he's married, which is just how my luck runs. Just when I find a man who ticks all my boxes (Scottish, interested in history, slightly bat sh*t crazy), he's not available. *Sigh* However, he's now replaced Josh Bernstein as my bit of thinking woman's crumpet. Sorry Josh! Anyway, you're looking for a six-foot tall Jewish blonde who likes the outdoors (by the way, if you haven't found her, how is that working for you? UPDATE:  Josh Bernstein is getting married on Sunday to Lily Snyder who is tall, blonde and Jewish, as well as well-connected).

No, I'll settle for using Mr. Cowie as the prototype for a contemporary series that I'm thinking of working on, that would involve a loveable rogue like him.  Think of the Michael Douglas character in Romancing the Stone but hotter and Scottish!

You can read more about Mr. Cowie in this interview with The Morton Report.

Monday, August 29, 2011

William and Catherine - A Royal Romance

About the Movie

William & Catherine: A Royal Romance chronicles the love story of Prince William (Dan Amboyer) and Kate Middleton (Alice St. Clair) that resulted in one of the most celebrated weddings in history. At a pivotal point in their courtship, William takes to heart the advice of his mother, the late Princess Diana (Lesley Harcourt), which she bestowed in an interview before her untimely death. The message she left for her son: hold on to the love of your life and protect it with all of your heart.

Stars Jane Alexander (Queen Elizabeth II), Victor Garber (Prince Charles), Jean Smart (Camilla Parker Bowles), Alice St. Clair (Kate Middleton), Dan Amboyer (Prince William).

Gotham Gal says - Well, you just knew that I was going to watch this didn't you? Especially with Hurricane Irene battering the East Coast, I really, truly had nothing better to watch this weekend apart from Dr. Who and several episodes of Millionaire Matchmaker (Patti really is a bitch isn't she?).  This TV movie in many ways was even more laughable than the Lifetime TV movie that came out in April. I'm not even sure where to start with this one.  The scene at Prince William's 21st birthday party, when Kate comes bouncing up to the Queen and introduces herself without even curtesying.  The portrayal of the Middleton's as gauche, nouveau-riche idiots? Kate and the Queen playing WiFi tennis? Prince William breaking up with Kate over the telephone?The Queen trying to pronounce Kanye West? Or how about Prince Philip completely getting the Queen's genealogy wrong by calling Edward VII her great uncle? (He was her great grandfather).

The movie opens up with Prince William watching a videotape of his mother in the infamous interview with Martin Bashir (he watches this interview intermittently during the movie to show how close he was to his mother and how her death affected him).  I had no problem with that.  I did have a problem with them showing Prince William showing up at St. Andrew's University sans Prince Charles (which the previous movie at least managed to get right). Kate and William meet cute in the hallway when he bumps into her and she drops her laundry. Hysterical moment when he points out her knickers are still on the ground. This Kate Middleton is a barmaid at the local pub, where William drowns his sorrows trying to be normal bloke.  There is the obligatory scene where Kate convinces him to stay at college which comes out of nowhere, and scenes of him dating some generic blonde named Cynthia.  Of course we have the infamous fashion show, where for some reason Prince Harry shows up, looking older than William.

In this version Kate and William's relationship doesn't start until after his 21st birthday, he's too preoccupied with someone named Jenna (presumably Jecca Craig).  Back at college, during their third year, he sets up a romantic dinner for two, which he burns. Kate comes to the rescue and she jumps him while they are watching a movie.  The one thing I will give this movie credit for, is that at least you have some sense as to why William and Kate are attracted to each other, and why they fell in love, a huge failure of the Lifetime Movie.  Where this movie fails is in their protrayal of the Middleton family.  Kate comes off as completely clueless about royal etiquette as do her parents.  There is no Pippa and James and no sense of how close the Middletons are, which is apparently what attracted William in the first place.

What gauls me about both these movies is that there are dozens of books and magazines that have been written about the royal couple, documenting at least the milestones in their relationship and both movies either fudge the details (because they have the cheapest budgets on the planet) or don't care.  Kate didn't take the job at Jigsaw until almost a year after her graduation from college. Where was the scene of Prince William landing a helicopter on the Middleton's lawn? Kate and her family showing up at Prince William's graduation, and Carole Middleton getting slagged for chewing nicotine gum? The nights out at Bouji and Mahiki? Kate taking part in the charity race (the first movie at least got this right).  The only sign of William feeling trapped is Kate pointing out a crib in a shop window. In the Hallmark movie, Kate and William get back together after they discover they are both watching the same concert in the park. 

While the Hallmark movie has a more distinguished cast (Victor Garber, Jane Alexander and Jean Smart), Ben Cross was a much more believable Prince Charles than Victor Garber.  Not sure what was the point of having scenes with Camilla since we never get a sense of her relationship with Prince William, Prince Harry or even the Queen. The Lifetime movie also gave you more of a sense of the time that Kate and William spent together, skiing, spending weekends at Highgrove.  However, both films feature the generic friends of Prince William who don't really have names but are just filler.

I have to give this film an A for effort but a C+ for delivery.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Gotham Gal Review: TOUT SWEET

Title:  Tout Sweet
Author:  Karen Wheeler
Pub. Date: August 2011

Publisher: Sourcebooks, Incorporated
Format: Paperback , 320pp

Synopsis:  In her mid-thirties, fashion editor Karen has it all: a handsome boyfriend, a fab flat in west London, and an array of gorgeus shoes. But when her boyfriend, Eric, leaves she makes an unexpected decision: to hang up her Manolos and wave good-bye to her glamorous city lifestyle to go it alone in a run-down house in rural Poitou-Charentes, central western France.

Tout Sweet is the perfect read for anyone who dreams of chucking away their BlackBerry in favor of real blackberrying and downshifting to a romantic, alluring locale where new friendships–and new loves–are just some of the treasures to be found amongst life's simple pleasures.

About the Author:  Karen Wheeler is a former fashion editor for the Mail on Sunday and current writer for the Financial Times 'How to Spend It' magazine and London's Daily Mail. Her work has appeared in the Evening Standard and You magazines, Sunday Times Style and numerous international publications. Visit Karen at and Twitter @mimipompom1

Gotham Gal says:  Sourcebooks asked me to review this book weeks ago, and due to work and putting together book proposals, I only managed to read the book this past weekend.  It was just the palate cleanser that I needed after reading severa historical novels and non-fiction books in succession. This was a light, fun read that had surprising depth at times. On the surface, Wheeler has led a life that most of us would envy, she works as a beauty and fashion editor for a leading London magazine (which she does not name), filled with beautiful parties, countless shoes and dresses.  When her plans to marry her handsome French boyfriend fall through, she decides at 35 to change her life. She buys a fixer-upper with no heat or hot water in a remote French village on impulse—"a long way from anyone's idea of the charming French house."

Although her relationship with her boyfriend is long over, Wheeler finds it hard to recover, especially after she finds out some devastating information that makes her question everything. What I found interesting about the book was how quickly Wheeler adapted to life in a small village where everyone knows your business. She quickly settles into a routine and makes friends incredibly easy. I was impressed by the fact that she took her time improving her French in twice weekly classes before she made the move, instead of just relying on some weird version of Franglais like some of the Europeans that she describes in the book.  I found it rather strange that she lived on bread and cheese for months until she has a functioning kitchen, when she had new friends who were more than willing to feed her.

The book only became bogged down when it dealt with her dating life. It seemed like every man she met was either a heel or a loser. The book came to life when it chronicles the details of how she transformed an unloved and neglected house into a cozy home. The house in a sense serves as a metaphor for Wheeler's broken heart.  As the house starts to become more like a home, Wheeler starts to heal and become more whole. Wheeler proves to have a sharp eye for social commentary, her views on the ways on which ex-pats either don't adapt to France or they try to make France more like Britain (which begs the question why some of them chose to retire in a foreign country in the first place) are priceless.  Some of the scenes in the book were priceless, particularly when she makes a discovery about the hunky baker in town, and a fun weekend she spends with friends bunked down in suite at the Plaza Athenee.  I almost began to envy her life, being able to breeze to London and Paris for work, and in between settled down into her cozy country village, even without a Marks and Spencer food hall (don't they one in Paris?).

This book certainly deserves a place on the shelf of any armchair traveler.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Gotham Gal Review: Death Takes a Holiday

Synopsis:  In Death Takes a Holiday, it's just after the first World War and the loneliest of souls arrives at an Italian villa disguised as a handsome young Prince, and for the first time experiences the joys and heartbreaks of life. But when he unexpectedly falls in love with a newly engaged young woman, the mysterious stranger discovers that love may in fact be stronger than death. Directed by Tony® winner Doug Hughes (Doubt), this soaring tale of love is adapted by Tony®-winning writers Peter Stone (1776) and Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray), and features lush, romantic songs by Tony® winner Maury Yeston (Nine, Titanic).

Last night I went to see the new off-Broadway show DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, produced by the Roundabout Theatre company. I absolutely adore the 1934 film with Frederic March (didn't even bother to watch the remake MEET BRAD PITT), so I was anxious to see how they adapted the story.  The film is based on an Italian play that was written right after the first World War when so many young men lost their lives, so there is a poignancy to the story of Death coming to Earth to take a holiday and learning about love and loss, and how what he does affects people.

Unfortunately I was very disappointed in both the show and several of the performances.  My first disappointment was discovering that the lead actor, Julian Ovenden (FOYLE'S WAR, THE FORSYTHE SAGA) had to leave the show because of vocal problems. Just from seeing the stills from the show, and a brief clip, I could tell just how right he would have been for the lead role. Death should be sexy, mysterious and a bit sinister.  The actor who replaced him, Kevin Early while a fine singer, just didn't have the acting chops for the role. He also looks more like a Midwestern farmer than either the Russian Prince he impersonates or Death. Jill Paice, who plays his love interest, plays Grazia as a giddy, naive woman, who flutters her hands alot and babbles on about true love. I found it hard to believe that they fell in love at first sight or that they are soulmates.

It doesn't help that the score is also unmemorable. I can't remember a single melody from the show, nothing stuck.  LOVE NEVER DIES was not a great show but the title tune sticks with you, even though its annoying. One song in DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY sounded like something that was left on the cutting room floor by the creators of the 1920's pastiche musical THE BOYFRIEND. The biggest weakness in the show, however, is the denouement. Death has told Grazia's father that he has decided not to take her with him, he goes to tell her, but she's not frightened of him after he reveals his true nature, and they embrace. End of show.  She never tells her parents of her decision, or why she's going.  There needs to be a song when she explains to her family why she has made the decision that she's made, and how even though she's unhappy to leave them, she's fulfilling her destiny.  The 1934 film has such a scene where Death and Grazia go off together, after she explains why.

The set was lovely and the costumes although generic 1920's were very pretty.  I enjoyed some of the performances of the minor characters incuding Simon Jones and the butler, but all in all, it was a pretty dull evening.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gotham Gal Review: IRONCLAD (2011)


Directed by: Jonathan English
Written by:  Jonathan English
                    Erick Kastel
                   Stephen McDool

James Purefoy as Marshall

Paul Giamatti as King John
Brian Cox as Albany
Mackenzie Crook as Marks
Jason Flemyng as Beckett
Derek Jacobi as Cornhill
Kate Mara as Lady Isabel
Jamie Foreman
Charles Dance - Archbishop Langton
Aneurin Barnard as Guy

Plot:  A Templar knight and a ragtag band of warriors hold out for months against the hard-fought siege of Rochester Castle in 1215.  Set just after King John's signing of the Magna Carta treaty, the group struggles against the King to defend the freedom iof their country.
Gotham Gal says:  Well isn't that a tidy little plot summary from Wikipedia?  But that basically is the entire plot of IRONCLAD.  The film opens with King John signing the Magna Carta and a voice-over telling the audience that there was more to the story than previously known.  IRONCLAD is what happened after the signing, when King John (Paul Giamatti relishing the chance to play a King), still pissed off at being forced to sign, decides to get back at all the barons in the kingdom because that's just the kind of douchebag that he is.  He hires a band of Danish mercenaries, telling them that he will keep the Pope from Christianizing Denmark, if they help him. Oh, and he'll pay them a bunch of money as well, but apparently the whole keep the Pope out of Denmark is more important to them.
Meanwhile, Thomas Marshal (played by the delectable James Purefoy) has returned to England after many years fighting in the Holy Land. He stops at a castle belonging to the King, along with several priests.  The King arrives, and because the chuch supported the barons, the priests are killed but Marshal manages to escape and make his way to Canterbury where he runs into Albany (Brian Cox) who has decided to continue the rebellion against the King.  It seems that John has been killing off all the barons who signed Magna Carta and Albany is determined to stop him by taking Rochester Castle, which is located on the coast.  Apparently, the French are also supposed to be making their way to England to help.
Albany manages to cobble together a group of about 6 guys along with Marshal to hold the castle. They make their way to Rochester where Cornhill is forced into helping them.  From here on in, the film is one long battle scene interspersed with a few scenes of the men squabbling, learning to write their names, starving, and more squabbling.  The battle scenes are incredibly bloody, body parts flying everywhere, blood spurting from every orifice.  After awhile, I couldn't look at it any more, I just covered my eyes until they were over.
This is a film that requires you to check your brain at the door.  Otherwise, you start wondering as I did, why Albany (D'Aubigny in real life) could only find like 6 men to help? Seriously, there had to have been more people pissed off at the king than that.  Oh, and Thomas Marshal, the Knight Templar, is like a one man killing machine to the point of it being ridiculous. Although the way he wields his sword is incredibly sexy.  I might have to start reading some medieval romances now after seeing this movie.
There is something of a love story, if you can call it that.  Kate Mara (not to be confused with her sister Rooney) plays Lady Isabel, the wife of Cornhill (played by the great Derek Jacobi).  According to Wikipedia, Megan Fox was attached at one point to play this role.  Thank god she dropped out because she would have been terrible. Seriously, Megan Fox attempting an English accent? She can barely speak American English.  Anywhoo, Lady Isabel is seriously horny because Cornhill who is much, much older has no interest in her other than telling her not to drink wine or do anything fun. So of course, the minute she spies Thomas Marshal, her hormones go into overdrive.  See despite his vows of chastity, he just oozes testosterone what with all the killing he's been doing.  Plus he's incredibly noble, he doesn't like killing, even in the name of God.
So of course, Lady Isabel has to get her some of that man candy.  At first she creeps up on him while he's sharpening his sword (hint, hint). Of course, he's partially dressed, with his shirt artfully open to display one tantalizing man titty, lightly dusted with hair.  While Lady Isabel salivated to reach out and touch him, so did every woman in the audience.  I'm telling you it was nice to see a man objectified for a change.  Of course, he tells her know, because he's a Templar and took vows and all.  But Lady Isabel is not deterred, oh no.  What with people dying left and right, she's determined to get some before they all get killed.  This time, she decides to show him the goods by lifting up her dress.  Apparently he liked what he saw because before you can say "Hail Mary," they're doing it in the barn.  Not that the audience got to see anything, since nobody was getting killed.  Instead, we just got a little bit of afterglow on Lady Isabel while Marshal glowered (James Purefoy gives very good glower and smoldering, man can he smolder) at her, calling what they did a sin.
Of course, all turns out well in the end, despite half the castle getting blown up (this actually happened).  The French miraculously arrive in time (which didn't happen) and John is a sore loser.  Again this didn't happen, in real life, the remaining occupants finally surrendered, and John died a year later, leaving his young son Henry III to continue his fight with the barons. I can't quarrel with the acting in this film.  Paul Giamatti plays King John as a petty tyrant but who is very aware of the importance of the crown and wielding power. This is a King John who is not ready to give an inch or to compromise.  James Purefoy has what the New York Times called an 'arresting screen presence.'  He manages to say more without any words than any actor I have seen. And he's hot.  Kate Mara has very little to do as Lady Isabel but be pretty and horny, which she does admirably.  It was fun to see Derek Jacobi and Brian Cox together on film, particularly after having met Derek a few weeks ago.  Was it worth the 'gulp' $13.00 I spent to see this film? No, not really, but it was fun nevertheless.
Gotham Gal verdict:  3 red apples.