Showing posts with label Karen Wheeler. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Karen Wheeler. Show all posts

Friday, 20 April 2012

Friday book review - The Parisian's Return by Julia Stagg

Ever since I first set eyes on the House With No Name, I’ve been addicted to reading books about France. Recently, as well as re-reading Francois Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, I’ve whizzed through Je t’aime la Folie by Michael Wright and, of course, Karen Wheeler’s wonderful trilogy about hanging up her high heels and moving across the Channel.

And this week I’ve discovered another author who’s brilliant at bringing the intricacies of rural France to life. Julia Stagg lived in the mountainous Ariège-Pyrenees region for six years, where she ran a small auberge and “tried to convince the French that the British can cook.” Now based in the Yorkshire Dales, she’s written two novels about the inhabitants of a tiny French village – L’Auberge and The Parisian’s Return.

I’ve just read The Parisian’s Return and even though it’s set the opposite side of France to House With No Name country, it evokes the French way of life so vividly it made me want to hop on the Eurostar right away.

The character at the centre of Julia’s novel is Stephanie Morvan, a single mother who’s moved to the village of Fogas to make a new life for her and her daughter. She works at a local restaurant and dreams of launching her own organic gardening centre. But the whole community is thrown into turmoil when Fabian Servat, the tricky nephew of the couple who own the village grocery, returns from his hotshot job in Paris to take charge of the store. Worse still, Stephanie almost kills him twice in quick succession – once by braining him with a stale baguette and then by crashing into his bike on a lonely mountain road.

Charming, funny and authentic, the novel covers everything from inheritance law in France (complicated!) to wine (thanks to Julia I now know that if I ever come across a 1959 Bordeaux it’s worth a lot and I should sell it, not drink it). But the bits that resonated most were her wise words about the people who move to isolated villages in France to “get away from it all.” As she perceptively points out, the newcomers who make it work are the ones who keep their feet firmly on the ground, speak French and become friends with the locals.

“… those who eventually called this place home arrived with their eyes wide open and not a rose-tinted lens in sight,” she writes. “They appreciated the distinct seasons which made the mountains so beautiful to live in but sometimes so hard to live with. They understood the vagaries of the weather and the curses and blessings they bestowed. And they didn’t fight the pace of life, where there was no such thing as a quick hello, only a slow goodbye.”

The Parisian’s Return by Julia Stagg (Hodder, £7.99)

Friday, 2 March 2012

Friday book review - Tout Soul by Karen Wheeler

From Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence to Michael Wright’s J’aime la Folie, I love books about people who’ve thrown up their safe lives in the UK and started exciting new ones in France. But the writer who really strikes a chord with me is Karen Wheeler. She’s the former Mail on Sunday fashion editor who hung up her high heels and fashionista life and moved to a house in a small village in rural Poitou-Charentes. Well, she’s still whizzes back and forth across the channel to pursue her career as a beauty journalist, but for most of the time she’s in France – or as she calls it, “the land of the long lunch.”

I’ve never met Karen but I feel as if I’ve known her for years. I’m an avid fan of her blog, Tout Sweet, and was thrilled when it turned out she read House With No Name too. She once added a comment on my blog saying that House With No Name’s windows would look “tres chic” in pale grey. Guess what? I took her advice and she’s absolutely right. They look chicer than chic.

So I was thrilled to discover that Karen had decided to write a series about her new life in France. She told House With No Name about them in yesterday’s interview and with the third book, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France, out next week, I couldn't wait to read it.

I don’t want to give anything away but at the end of the second book Karen seemed to have it all - a dog called Biff, a charismatic Portuguese boyfriend and loads of friends, some French, others ex-pats. The new book opens with her dashing across the departure lounge at Stansted Airport after a journalistic assignment in the UK, wearing sky-high Prada heels, laden with organic vegetables and desperate to get back to her idyllic life in France.

Only it turns out that it isn’t so idyllic after all. Out of the blue comes a shattering discovery and as the year progresses Karen needs to summon up every ounce of fortitude she possesses.

If it sounds downbeat and depressing, rest assured – it isn’t. Karen writes in such a vibrant style and conjures up life in France so beautifully that you can see her small village, with its narrow streets, little square and three cafés, in your mind’s eye as you read. She said in yesterday’s interview that she hoped that in amongst the sad bits there is an “uplifting message” at the heart of the story, and there really is. Certainly some of the sad bits made me cry, but the overall theme of the book is one of love, joy and appreciation of the important things in life. Like friendship, kindness, an adorable dog, a stunning, sunflower-filled landscape and the odd glass or two of champagne.

Karen's latest book, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France, is available for download now, from Amazon. The print version will be launched on March 7 at £10.99, and to coincide with the launch, the e-book version of Karen's first book, Tout Sweet: Hanging up My High Heels for a New Life in Rural France, will be available at a special promotional rate of £2.99 from March 7.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Interview with Karen Wheeler - author of Tout Sweet, Toute Allure and Tout Soul

Whenever I worry about my whirlwind decision to buy the House With No Name, my run-down farmhouse in the south of France, I quickly turn to my growing library of books by other people who’ve done pretty much the same thing. My absolute favourites are the three books that former fashion editor Karen Wheeler has written about hanging up her high heels and moving to a small village in rural Poitou-Charentes. The first two are Tout Sweet: Hanging up my High Heels for A New Life in France and Toute Allure: Falling in Love in Rural France, and the third, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France is out next week.

There’ll be a review of Tout Soul on tomorrow’s Friday Book Review, but in the meantime Karen kindly agreed to answer some questions from House With No Name.

Why did you decide to move to France – and when? Did you ever consider moving to a city or did you want to be in rural France?

Karen: It was a random series of events that led me there, all described in my first book Tout Sweet: Hanging up my High Heels for a New Life in France. I would never have considered moving to a city, as I’d lived in London for most of my life, and as cities go, it’s a pretty hard one to beat. I wanted countryside, fields and unspoilt countryside at my door. And I wanted that whole rustic French vibe: red and white checked tablecloths, jasmine and hollyhocks, and logs piled up in wicker baskets by the fire.

It sounds really tough to leave friends in London and make a totally new life in a different country. What advice would you give to anyone contemplating moving to France?

Karen: For me, it wasn’t a tough decision at all. Instead, it felt like an amazing opportunity had dropped out of the sky. My advice would be to move somewhere that is within walking or cycling distance of a village, rather than a remote hamlet. And don’t move there if you’re doing so in order to save your marriage. It’s surprising how many couples do, only for their relationship to go into meltdown shortly after arrival.

How good was your French when you arrived – and are you fluent now?

Karen: It was passable – I had A level French and for my history degree (admittedly a long time ago) I worked a lot with original documents from the French Revolution, so I could read it fluently. Conversation wise, there is definitely room for improvement, especially when I’m cross, which is usually with France Telecom. Then words often fail me.

When I’m in France the main things I miss are Earl Grey tea bags and M&S. What do you miss most about the UK? 

Karen: Apart from friends, M&S food hall is the number one thing that I miss. Someone once said that eating out in rural France is a lesson in repeated heartbreak. Cheese and wine aside, I would say the same about French supermarkets: harmful additives and hydrogenated fats are shockingly prevalent.

And what are the best things about living in France? Best food, drink, way of life?

Karen: For me it is the beauty of the Poitevin countryside. The Poitou-Charentes is a very under-rated area of France with some stunning walks and cycle rides. My favourite thing is cycling through dilapidated hamlets and old villages at sundown on a summer evening, with Biff (Karen’s dog) running along by my bike.

Your village sounds heavenly. Is it really called Villiers – and have you given your French friends different names? How have they all reacted to the books?

Karen: I changed the name of my village and also the names of my friends – with the exception of Luis. The overwhelming response to the books has been positive; and my friends have been very generous in letting me write about events in their lives. That said, I do hold back on a lot of stuff and I try to focus on peoples’ most endearing traits. One day I might write the unexpurgated version! For me, real life is much more interesting than fiction. There are some wonderful characters hiding out in the French countryside.

Your new book tackles a heartbreaking time in your life. I don’t want to give the story away but was it a tough decision to write about your love life and innermost thoughts?

Karen: Yes, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to write this book at all. The most common piece of reader feedback I’ve had about first two books is that they are very uplifting and “better than anti-depressants” but Tout Soul covers some very sad territory. Writing it has been a form of therapy for me. It’s weird but when I write my books, I do them for myself first and foremost – creating the sort of book that I would like to read. It’s only when they are published and out in the word that I panic and think: “God, do I really want people to know that about me?”

I’m actually a bit mortified when I think about the stuff that I’ve revealed in Tout Soul – some of it really quite embarrassing in the cold light of publication day. But I wrote it with my heart rather than my head (had my head been in charge I probably wouldn’t have written it at all).

A friend who works in the book world read it very early on and said that I come across as a bit mad in places. But I recently read A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, in which she meticulously picks apart the process of grieving, following her husband’s death. As Didion points out, “The power of grief to derange the mind has been exhaustively noted.” I could relate to so much of what Didion describes in her book and I think that many of my readers will be able to relate to the emotions described in Tout Soul – particularly the feelings of loss, guilt and regret.

The book was also written for someone who made a lasting impression on my life. And despite the sad events, the ultimate message is, I hope, an uplifting one: that life is the most amazing privilege.

Will there be more books in the series? Note from me: Please say yes!

Karen: I kept telling myself that Tout Soul would be the last – that I can’t go on writing about my life forever – but then something really funny happens or I meet a really interesting character and I think “Just one more book!” Plus, I really enjoy writing the books. I feel like I’ve found the thing that I was meant to do.

So yes, I’m about to start work on the fourth in the series, to be published next year, called Sweet Encore. (Unfortunately, I’ve run out of plays on the word “Tout”.) I can’t reveal the subtitle yet, as I don’t want to give too much away. This book is going to be a bit of a surprise. And after that, who knows?

Is your dog, Biff, as adorable as he sounds and looks?

Karen: YES – probably even more so in real life. He’s a very charismatic little dog – fun, fearless and affectionate. He charms everyone that he meets, apart from the local cats. I’m completely besotted with him.

Karen's latest book, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France, is available for download now, from Amazon. The print version will be launched on March 7 at £10.99, and to coincide with the launch, the e-book version of Karen's first book, Tout Sweet: Hanging up My High Heels for a New Life in Rural France, will be available at a special promotional rate of £2.99 from March 7.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

How to dress in summer

Looking summery and stylish when the temperature soars is a tricky feat to pull off.

Suddenly exposed to a few sunrays after months of drizzle and cold, most of us look as though we’ve never encountered summer before. Apart from a handful of style icons like Alexa Chung and Natalie Portman, we haven’t got a clue what to wear during the summer months. I certainly haven’t. I’ve worn black tights till the end of July, horrified at the thought of exposing my pale legs.

When I headed into London recently I looked around at my fellow commuters and realised I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a clue. Some were in skimpy frocks more suited to Ibiza nightclubs, some had opted for those horrible flouncy skirts that don’t look good on anyone and a few were still buttoned up to the neck in winter outfits.

Judging by this week’s pictures of David Cameron and George Osborne, it’s doubly hard for holidaying politicians. Forced to cast aside their slick city suits and polished brogues, their attempts to go into relaxed mode go horribly wrong. First the PM was snapped sipping cappuccino in a Tuscan café wearing wintery black loafers and no socks. Then the Chancellor was seen in LA sporting loose-fitting jeans, grey jacket and a very unchic red and black mini-rucksack.

But the worst offenders in hot weather are the men who emerge in too-short shorts, open-toed sandals and beige socks (a combination that should have been thrown in the bin years ago) and pudding-basin sunhats that even David Beckham would be hard-pressed to look good in. The British as a nation, I reckon, are in need of an urgent summer makeover.

PS: If, like me, you dream of escaping to a new life in France, do read Karen Wheeler’s accounts of her decision to hang up her high heels and move to rural Poitou-Charentes in western France. Or as she calls it, “the land of the long lunch." When I reviewed her first book, Tout Sweet, a couple of years ago, I wrote: “I’m loving former fashion editor Karen Wheeler's new book... If she can do it, I keep thinking, then so can I.” I still stand by every word. And today it’s being published in the US (the American cover is shown above), so I hope it sells stack-loads of copies.

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