Wednesday 31 October 2012

My Life in Books: Series Three: Day Three

Tanya blogs at 20th Century Vox, and over the past year or so has turned into my conference buddy!  We've attended three together - and it's always lovely to catch-up.

Margaret is the nearest thing I have to a blog twin, since she started Books Please just two days after I started this blog!  She very kindly provided her own photos for her Life in Books.

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Tanya: My mother was (and is) a big reader - when I was a child, she would regularly announce that she was going upstairs to "tidy up", which actually meant "sit on the bed absorbed in a Georgette Heyer". She read to me all the time, took me to the library and generally encouraged me to read. An early storybook favourite was Pierre Bear, a story about a hunting bear who in the course of the text dispatches a seal and a moose, which he turns into 'thirteen jars of minced moose meat'. This may account for my conversion to vegetarianism at the age of six. The childhood favourite I'd like to pick, though, is Enid Blyton's In the Fifth at Malory Towers. This was given to me when I was about eight and I found it wonderfully exotic - dormitories, lacrosse and midnight feasts were symbols of a completely alien world - but totally engrossing. It didn't matter that I hadn't read the others; Enid Blyton's characters are never really that complex and I quickly worked out who was who. Best of all, it was one of a whole series of books - I could read all about the earlier schooldays of Darrell, Sally and Alicia (the latter was always my favourite). This was the first book that really allowed me, as a reader, to enter and experience a new imaginative world; and I suspect it shaped my taste for interwar fiction in later life.

Margaret: I did grow up in a book-loving family. It was my dad who read to me and made up stories as well and it was my mum who took me to the library each week. I don’t remember my dad reading many books, but my mum always had one on the go. Birthday and Christmas presents always included books and my aunties also used to give me books. I had my own bookcase that my dad made for me.

One of my childhood favourites is Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll.  My Great Aunty Sally gave it to me and I must have read it many, many times, loving the story and the illustrations. It actually sets a chess problem and although that is set out in the opening pages as I didn’t know anything about chess I didn’t bother with that and the story made absolute sense to me without understanding the chess moves. When I say sense, it is of course a nonsense plot, peopled with chess pieces and nursery rhyme characters, plenty of word games and puzzles, with bits of logic and philosophy thrown in. I loved it as a child and I love it now.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Tanya: When I was thirteen, I went to Germany on a school exchange, and woefully underestimated the number of books I'd need to take. My hosts all spoke good English and there were a few English novels about the house; the one I picked up was The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie. I'd never read a crime novel before and although I must have read other 'grown-up' books by this time, this is the one I remember best. Perhaps this is because I was in an alien (if friendly) environment, and Christie's book took me back to the English village I'd left behind. Miss Marple, that insightful spinster, was also a personally reassuring figure: I had a lot of clever, unmarried great-aunts. The plot of this novel hinges on the truth that lies underneath appearances; with hindsight this seems to be a perfect text for the adolescent me, looking grown-up but not really feeling it..

Margaret: It’s hard to remember which book that would be. It was either Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. I think it’s most likely to have been Jane Eyre because I remember watching a TV dramatisation at a friends house (we didn’t have a TV then) and being scared by the mad woman and I can still visualise the scene where she sets the house on fire. My mum had a copy of the book and so I read it, still scared by the mad woman but enthralled by the story. I don’t think much was going on in my life at that time apart from school and Girl Guides.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Tanya: So hard to choose only one, but here goes: Barbara Trapido's Brother of the More Famous Jack, which I picked up randomly and read devotedly and repeatedly when I was about seventeen. If you don't know the book, it's the story of Katherine, a young Londoner, and her relationships with the family of her ebullient philosophy professor, Jacob Goldman. I loved the narrative style of this book, which is all told in first person but switches about between past and present tense. I loved the sophistication of it, and the way that sophistication is mediated through Katherine's naivety. I loved the unflinching way that the novel deals with pain. Most of all, though, this book showed me that there were other ways to live - that there was a big and complex world outside of sixth form and that I could get out and explore it, although my life turned out nothing like Katherine's. I'd also never read a book with so much swearing in it which was strangely liberating. My paperback copy of this fell apart after a year or so of obsessive re-reading, and my colleagues at the bookshop where I worked kindly gave me a hardback which I still have. I still love Barbara Trapido, too.

Margaret: I don’t think any book has helped me ‘set off in a certain direction in life’, because most of the books I’ve read were as a result of my interests rather than the other way round. In my early adulthood I didn’t read as many books as I did as a child, nor as I do now.

There is one book that I first read as a teenager that is still a favourite – Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings. When I was at Library School in my early twenties, it was ‘the book’ to read and talk about and I re-read it at that time and again later on several times. It’s such a satisfying book to read on a variety of levels. It’s fantasy, magic, myth, an epic tale about friendship, heroism and the fight between good and evil. It’s beautifully poetically written, with its own historical background, language and culture. It’s a page-turner, about a quest with a multitude of characters facing enormous perils and twists and turns that never fails each time I re-read it to entrance me. I suppose in some ways it’s a continuation of the fairy and fantasy tales I read and loved as a child, brought into the adult world.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two, and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Tanya: I'm going to pick Roger Deakin's Waterlog which I read in 2009 and which was not only a pleasure in its own right but led me on to read a lot more nature and travel writing. Deakin's book is everything I like in non-fiction: incredibly expert but always interesting, diverse in content but consistent in theme, related to personal experience, and most of all beautifully written. Other book bloggers have opened up this type of writing for me and it's often from them that I've gleaned recommendations for writers like Robert MacFarlane and Kathleen Jamie. I love this type of writing because it sharpens and focuses my attention to the world I'm in, however mundane; it makes me look. It's also gloriously separate from the sort of thing I read for my PhD. I started blogging partly as a warm-up for my PhD, to get my critical skills in gear, and partly because I wanted a space to think and reflect on whatever I chose to read, PhD-releated or not. I think I re-read less as a result of the blog - partly because I want to read new material to write about, and partly because other bloggers' enthusiasms have enlarged my to-be-read list vastly.

Margaret: How hard to choose just one favourite book! But one book does stand out – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It is of course, historical fiction, one of my favourite genres and it also stands out because it’s written in the present tense, which I normally avoid like the plague. However, even with this stumbling block and her slightly confusing use of the pronoun ‘he’, Hilary Mantel had me completely enthralled in this story of Thomas Cromwell. What I found most enjoyable was the way this book transported me back to that time, with Mantel’s descriptions of the pageantry, the people, the places and the beliefs and attitudes of the protagonists.

Blogging has most definitely changed my reading habits. I now read more carefully, although I’m still guilty of reading too fast and forgetting what I’ve read, but thinking about what to write about a book makes it so much more memorable. It’s also changed what I read. I now read much more widely than I did before, and it has introduced me to so many new-to-me authors and has taken me back to reading crime fiction, a genre I’d practically ignored for years.

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Tanya: A guilty pleasure only because both contributors can be so evil: the letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. I re-read these a lot with undiminished (and guilty) amusement as they vilify their friends, express vile political opinions (mainly Evelyn), tease unmercifully (mainly Nancy) and generally entertain each other. It's a great collection and very, very funny.

Margaret: Another difficult question, because I read quite widely, and have written on my blog about most of the books I’ve read over the last five years. But I rarely write about books on religion, even though I’ve read many books on Christianity and other religions ever since I was a teenager. One that I like very much is Karen Armstrong’s memoir The Spiral Staircase. Actually I like all the books by her that I’ve read, mainly on comparative religion. The Spiral Staircase is her account of her early life as a nun and traces her spiritual journey after she left her teaching order. It’s a sequel to her first autobiographical book, Through the Narrow Gate and is about her recovery from illness, panic attacks, seizures and depression, about her efforts to come to terms with the ‘real world’, and about her changing faith and her search for God.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Margaret, on Tanya's choices: I’ve only read the first two of theses books. I loved Enid Blyton’s books and nearly chose one as a favourite childhood book. And I’m a big Agatha Christie fan. So we started off in life with similar tastes. After that we diverge, and I’ve had to find out a bit about the books to make any comment. This person is probably someone who is younger than me, because he/she has chosen Brother of the More Famous Jack as a book read in early adulthood. I see it’s defined as ‘redefining the coming-of-age genre’, so it looks a good choice for a young adult.

I am interested in reading Waterlog, which I haven’t heard of before, even though I’m not too keen on swimming. A swimmer’s journey through Britain indicates an interest not only in outdoor swimming and in Britain but also in natural science, history and geography, which also interest me. Or, maybe this person is a keen swimmer? Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh is also an interesting choice, indicating a liking for twentieth century writers and social history. Overall, this is an eclectic reader.

Tanya, on Margaret's choices: These look like the choices of a person who really likes a long, involving book with lots of characters, a twisty plot, and the odd spot of magical intervention. I've yet to read Wolf Hall, but this and most of the other books are stories of quests in which a small or insignificant person triumphs against the odds in a world which might be confusing, hostile or dangerous. I couldn't work out why The Spiral Staircase might be a guilty pleasure - you'd have to have a highly serious reading habit for this to be a frivolous choice - so I imagine it is a surprising choice instead, perhaps of someone definitely not religious? But I don't find it surprising in this list - it has affinities with the other books, as there are elements of quest in Karen Armstrong's story, and the world can be as strange to her as Wonderland is to Alice. I think this person cheers for the underdog, admires a resolute hero(ine), and likes to contemplate the individual's place in the wider world. I also wonder if this person likes to accentuate the positive - these are, broadly, stories in which things work out, at least for the duration of the novel. This is probably also a reader who is at home with detail and complexity, unworried by a book with a huge cast, intricate plotting, or challenging ideas.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

My Life in Books: Series Three: Day Two

Iris is one of the most prolific people in my Twitter feed, which is lovely, and the only Dutch person I know, I think... she blogs at Iris on Books.

Verity has several blogs, but is perhaps best known to SiaB readers at Verity's Virago Venture - she is also my line manager when I'm at work in the Bodleian!  Sorry I'm on holiday today, Verity, hope the reading room is quiet...

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Iris: I grew up in a household that consciously supported reading. I got my first library card - or, rather, my parents got me my first library card - when I was one year old. My parents read to me a lot, and I was impatient to start reading myself. I loved pretending I could read by turning the pages of well-known books, of which I knew the story by heart, and telling the story as I remembered it. I think I used to think of myself as a reader when I was young. If you asked me who I wanted to be like, it would have been Matilda and Belle (of Beauty and the Beast).

A favourite children's book is The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. I think this came out of a combination of movie-watching and reading, as our Sunday morning television used to broadcast lots of Swedish children's movies. The movies based on the stories by Astrid Lindgren were always favourites and it wasn't long before my mother pointed out her books to me at the library. What I loved about The Brothers Lionheart was the unconditional love between the brothers, the world-beyond-dead that Astrid Lindgren managed to paint first as picture perfect, before revealing its darker shades, and then leaving a particularly heroic role to the two brothers (who were children, and taken seriously as if they were adults, which is a big plus) in defeating that darkness. Of course, I might not have been able to articulate it as such when I was younger. However, the book had a lasting impression on me. Growing up in an atheist household, I was fascinated with the picture of life after dead. More so because it's idyllic atmosphere held much of what I would have considered a ideal setting myself: nature, bunnies, a small cottage/farm, and fruit from your own orchard.

Verity: I did indeed grow up in a houseful of books, although a lot of them were academic rather than literary. 80% of them belonged to my father who rarely reads fiction; my mother preferred to rely on the library for a constant supply of reading material and would take me weekly. I never got enough books (only allowed 8 at a time!) to last a whole week, so I'd often have to read them a couple of times, although my school did have a reasonable library which acted as a top-up. I had many favourite books, and was a great fan of Enid Blyton, so I am going to mention the Stories of Mr Pinkwhistle, a fat tome given to me one Christmas, which has gone down in family annals as the first book which I was unable to finish in one day.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Iris: I have been thinking about this for some time, because I am sure I must have read more "grown-up" books before I turned to the one I am writing about here, but I cannot for the life of me remember it. Perhaps because when I consider my reading life during the first years of high school it is dominated by Harry Potter. The book that changed me from a Harry Potter fangirl [which I still am] into one that fell head over heels in love with classics was, rather predictably, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Somehow, the reason why I started reading Pride and Prejudice was again connected to television. I became interested after seeing a glimpse of the 1995 television series on TV, before my father put on another channel because he didn't want to watch "such drivel". I remember looking up the name "Mr. Darcy" (the scene I saw was the one where Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy at Pemberly and exclaiming his name) on the internet, and finding out about Pride and Prejudice. I knew I had heard about the book before, I knew it was "a classic", but I really didn't have a clue what it was about [I still wonder how that is even possible]. The reason why I searched for it was because I saw what I considered to be a similar dress-style to the Little Women movie, which I really liked.. [oh, for all the silly reasons..]

So, I took Pride and Prejudice out of the school library and read it in two days straight. I stayed up late at night, pretending to be asleep but reading beneath the covers because I had to know what happened next. I hadn't yet gotten used to reading in English, and I remember being thoroughly confused about the meaning of the word "elopement", but I loved the love story. I loved the passion and the tension and the grand declarations combined with the restrained etiquette. I very much fell in love with the love story when I was 14. I desperately needed that love story having just lived through a horrible first relationship of my own, with a controlling boyfriend and all that jazz. It was only after Pride and Prejudice, after I had reread it numerous times, after I had desperately searched for another story that would make me feel like this one had, that I started appreciating Austen for everything she offers besides the love story. But because the book made me search for other classics, and because it was the first “grown-up” book I read in English (I had read Harry Potter in English before) I still consider it to be the starting point of my "adult" reading life. However, I cannot do that without giving Harry Potter its due too, for those were the books that truly made me define myself as a reader again, and a proud geek, and that made me turn to English books as I couldn't wait for the translation to appear.

Verity: The first "grown up" book I really enjoyed was Jane Eyre, aged about 10. A still-good-friend was even more of a precocious reader than me and would read whatever her parents had to hand. This ranged from Mills and Boon to a beautifully bound set of Jane Austen. I remember being impressed, obviously out loud, because our form tutor Mrs. Dickens then told me that the classics would be wasted on me. Red rag to the bull, and I found a paperback copy of Jane Eyre in our bookcases at home. I was gripped. Obviously at aged 10, and a lover of school stories, the school scenes at the beginning were of more interest to me than those involving Mr Rochester but I read it all.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Iris: In a way I want to repeat the answer to the second question here, for Pride and Prejudice was a defining book for me. But I'll take "early adulthood" as meaning the years beyond teenage life and force myself to think of another title. Which then turns out to be, predictably, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. This is perhaps not so much a change from Pride and Prejudice and more of a logical follow-up, but for me it came with a different framework.

For one, Jane Eyre allowed me to think about a lot of things. Reading this book was not solely about the love story, but also about its other themes: religion, feminism, "othering", and coming-of-age. Whereas I only thought about other themes besides the love story later when it came to Pride and Prejudice, the other themes were part of the instant appeal of Jane Eyre.

I think Jane Eyre was a book I only understood later, as an adult. It wasn't for me when I was 14. I remember reading it back then, liking it, but not as much as I did when I was an "adult". There were things to it that I couldn't grasp, or wasn't ready to admit to myself. One of those things is almost certainly the more sexual overtones of the story. I have never been comfortable with the ideas of desire and sexual tension in books. One of the reasons why I loved Pride and Prejudice was that they were there, but hidden, concealed. Jane Eyre plays upon the same concealment, but it is also vastly more open about passion being a part of human nature. It is more muddy in that way. I am still not overtly open about sexuality, nor about "finding men attractive", or whatever, but I think Jane Eyre was part of a process that at least let me acknowledge it to myself, and some other online friends.

Jane Eyre also taught me a lot about loving a book that might not be perfect all-round. There are things to be said about Rochester's behaviour, and about the portrayal of his first wife in a way that recalls colonial discourse, that usually halt me in my tracks. It was the first book that taught me about how feelings of discomfort might join with feelings of all-round-love. I haven't been able to find a solution to this dilemma yet, except perhaps the acceptance that you can enjoy a story despite recognising its faults.

Verity: Aged 16 or 17 I read Lark Rise to Candleford, passed to me by my father. Obviously this was before the dreadful television adaption (sorry to those who enjoyed it!), and rather than as an inspiration for costume drama, this book had a key place in social history. It was fascinating to read an autobiography which showed the influence of things that I was studying at school (for example the early twentieth century Liberal Reforms - Flora Thompson mentions the elderly pensioners coming to collect their pensions from the Post Office and saying "God bless Lloyd George") and thus started to awaken an understanding in me that rather than a list of dates and wars, history could be about real people and their lives.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two, and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Iris: One of the books that has turned into a favourite in recent years is Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. And it could only do so because I started blogging, since I believe I would never have found out about Lanagan's novels if it hadn't been for other bloggers being so passionate about them.

Tender Morsels challenged me, because I did not read much fantasy pre-blogging. I think I may even have been one of those readers who wasn't sure if it was correct to admit to liking fantasy before I became part of the online world. Genre reading is such a taboo in "the real world" sometimes. And it isn't often that the complexity of books that contain fantasy elements is acknowledged. Tender Morsels was my "big revelation" about the true beauty and complexity fantasy novels can have. About the big issues that can be tackled (abuse, rape, self-acceptance) in a balanced manner.

Tender Morsels is the perfect example of how blogging changed my (reading) life: reading outside my comfort zone was challenging, but rewarding, and blogging has motivated me to do this more than ever. Moreover, Tender Morsels was a gift from a blogger, and came recommended by yet another, which I think is what blogging means most of all: friendships created through a mutual conversations about books.

Verity: It's difficult to single out one book from the last year or two. I don't have so much time for reading, so I don't tend to continue to bother with books if they're not very good! I also have read quite a lot, maybe not this year, but in preceding years, which means I have a lot of books that I could recommend. I'm a big fan of Greyladies Books and I think the novels or "romances" by Susan Scarlett are just wonderful. Susan Scarlett was the pen name for Noel Streatfield, and I'd like to describe these books as like her children's books, but for adults. Certainly her adult novels under the Streatfield name can be quite bleak, but the Scarlett books are delightful and make wonderful holiday reading.

I came to blogging in 2008 I think. I was working in a very unstimulating job which didn't always occupy all of my time. Stuck-in-a-Book was one of the first blogs that I came across and I spent many hours going through the back posts and making lists of things that I might like to read. I felt that my reading was a little directionless at the time and apart from the weekend papers I had no idea how to find out about books that I might want to read, especially books which were not just being published. Stuck-in-a-Book and the other blogs that I found through it gave me lots of ideas and sent me off on the path of reading Persephone books and Viragoes (although I'd already encountered them in other guises previously). Now that I am back in a super-stimulating job, I don't have very much brain space for reading or blogging, but I do continue to read all of the blogs that I've started to follow and make notes of the books that I think I might like to read.

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Iris: I used to answer Twilight to this question. I haven't reread it in a few years though, and lately I am having big-time problems with its story (even more so than before). Perhaps that might turn it into more a guilty pleasure, but I'd have to read it again to see if it would still pull me in like that.

After Twilight though.. I don't know. Perhaps I have been less willing to categorize books as "guilty pleasures" lately, for nothing truly comes to mind. I have browsed through the titles of books I read in the past two years, and I wouldn't define any of them as guilty pleasures. There is a lot of comfort reading in there, as well as YA titles such as Divergent or Matched. Some might define that as guilty pleasures, I guess.

Verity: I seem to have more and more guilty pleasures at the moment, as a stressful job being balanced with other things, doesn't leave me with as much time as I would like to concentrate on reading. In times like these, you can't go wrong with some chick lit, and Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes, Adele Parks, Lisa Jewell and others can always be relied upon for something that's easy to read but not entirely frivolous. I have no shame at all about returning to children's books, and as an adult have built collections as diverse as the Chalet School and the Babysitters Club. I just wish they wouldn't shelve children's books in a separate room in the library! Talking of the library, another odd pleasure of mine, is to borrow books on entirely random subjects, just because they are free and interesting. I had a fascinating book out earlier in the year on how to run a B & B, something that I never intend to do, but it was fascinating. I suppose really that's what reading is all about - exploring and learning about other worlds from a place of safety.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Verity, on Iris's choices: It's nice to see that I have been paired with a blogger who has some similarities to me! Jane Eyre is always going to be a book that crops up for many people as significant. Whilst I haven't read Twilight, I could easily have included another cult YA book The Hunger Games as a guilty pleasure which I surprised myself by enjoying earlier this year. I have never read The Brothers Lionheart, but having looked it up on Amazon, I think I should redress this immediately although it looks as if I might make me cry. Seeing the inclusion of Tender Morsels in the list gave away this blogger's identity as someone whose blog I have been enjoying now for several years, I remember Iris mentioning it as something she really loved.

Iris on Verity's choices: My first reaction in seeing these titles was that this is a person I'd love to know - or a blogger I have probably already "met" in the online world. I have only read Jane Eyre myself, but Lark Rise to Candleford has long been among my must-read-soon titles. I think these titles show the picture of someone who likes "cozy" reading (in the sense that most books mentioned seem to portray a past life with a non-city setting and no whirlwind of things going on or a rush to the end of the plot). The person seems to enjoy romantic stories, but ones that offer something besides romance as well, and books with a strong emphasis on coming-of-age storylines. He or she also seems to favour English authors and settings, and the person seems very knowledgeable about them (Susan Scarlett isn't the first name that comes to mind for many!). If I would have to guess I'd say the person was born somewhere on the British Isles. While I know it's not much information I can offer, I think he or she must be one of those bloggers that make you feel like it'd be perfect to meet up for tea and cake, and with whom I would easily feel at ease.
[Simon: I should add that, unofficially, Iris suspected that Verity was her mystery partner!]

Monday 29 October 2012

My Life in Books: Series Three: Day One

Jackie has been blogging at Farm Lane Books for many years, and we almost never agree on any book!  I'm looking forward to seeing what she chooses...

John blogs at The Asylum, which recently leapt over the coveted 1,000,000 blog views statistic (but he doesn't want to talk about it!  This is where I should point out that I write these introductions...)

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Jackie: I didn’t grow up in a book loving household. I don’t remember seeing either of my parents reading a book, although I know my Dad read two or three thrillers a year. My parents encouraged me to read by taking me to the library at regular intervals, but I never had any guidance over what to read and so picked books off the shelf at random. This meant that I didn’t read many classics and most of the books had little impact on me. The few books that did feel important were all chosen by teachers as part of my English lessons. A particular favourite was Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien which ignited my passion for dystopian fiction. I loved the central character, a girl forced to survive by herself after a nuclear holocaust killed her entire family. Her resourcefulness and courage was inspiring.

John: Neither of my parents read much when I was a child - I certainly never saw them sitting down with a book - but I was encouraged to read. We had one of those World of Knowledge-type encyclopedia sets which I used to curl up with. The only fiction I remember seeing at home (in my father's bedside cupboard, not out on display) were Henri Charrière's Papillon and Spike Milligan's Puckoon.

I also don't remember being read to, though I can't say for sure. One of my favourite childhood books was Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. I loved its playfulness and trickery - qualities I still admire - and its joy in exploring letters and numbers was catnip to a little geek like me.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Jackie:When I was about 16 I fell in love with William Horwood‘s Duncton Wood series. Each book was about 750 pages long and I was proud of myself for reading something with so many pages. The books follow a group of moles on a epic adventure, but although it sounds like a children’s book it definitely isn’t - there is enough rape, murder and torture to classify firmly that this is an adult novel. I think this series is a modern classic and am surprised it isn’t more well known. At the time I was living in the Lake District, enjoying an outdoor life involving canoeing, walking and lots of camping. I think this is the reason that this story set in the great outdoors resonated with me so much.

John: I didn't read much adult fiction until my late teens, in my last year or two at school. Before then it was stuff like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett: written for adults, yes, but highly appealing to younger readers.

The first two adult authors I really loved - and whose backlists I devoured - were John Irving and Iain Banks, when I was aged 17 or 18 (1990 or '91). Banks's Walking on Glass was recommended by a schoolfriend - I was doing my A-levels at the time. I adored its hard-to-connect mysteries (again, a quality I still admire) and went on to read all his novels: he'd written only five by then.

John Irving I stumbled on after being drawn by the armadillo cover of A Prayer for Owen Meany, which had just come out in paperback in the summer of 1990. Again I raced through his other novels, and I particularly remember sneaking quick reads of The Cider House Rules in my A-level Physics class, and behind the counter in the clothing store where I worked at weekends for the princely sum of £9.50 a day! I remember sneaking a new Irving into the house past my mum, knowing that I shouldn't be spending what little money I had on more books. Now I sneak new books into the house past my wife. Plus ca change!

Oddly, Banks and Irving are both authors whose new books I don't seek out any more. I think they might be the opposite of an acquired taste, though I still have a great deal of affection for the ones I read back then.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Jackie: I read very little in early adulthood - having to work whilst doing a demanding chemistry degree meant I had very little free time. I got married straight after graduation and my husband and I bought a house together in Newcastle. Once there I started work as an analytical chemist and began reading again, although probably only about 10 books a year. During this time I was almost totally reliant on the Richard and Judy Book Club for my reading suggestions. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was a favourite - I loved the romance and tragedy of it all.

John: I might have answered this above. But another of the first adult books I bought - again in 1990 - was Julian Barnes' A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Like Walking on Glass, it's a fractured novel told in stories - arguably not a novel at all. I think those two books, looking back, were quite structurally adventurous ones to read as some of my earliest grown-up fiction, and might have forged my tolerance for non-traditional narratives. Another early favourite, Jeanette Winterson, whose terrific Sexing the Cherry I read a year or two later, and which I've reread probably more than any other book, is in the same boat. Both she and Barnes - who I think gets slightly unfair press - remain high on my personal league table.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two, and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Jackie: I started blogging shortly after the birth of my second son - I was at home on my own and needed something to occupy my brain. I never expected to still be writing it four years later, but it has become a bit addictive. My knowledge of books has grown immeasurably and I have found a whole world of literature that I was previously unaware of. I now read a range of different books from across the globe and no longer rely on the blurbs of random books in my local library. I have also become more aware of the literary prizes and this led me to read my favourite book, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It is set in India during the 1970s, a turbulent time for the country. It is a bleak, but inspiring tale that explains the difficulties faced by ordinary citizens of the country. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

John: Too many to choose from, but I'll plump for Maeve Brennan's story collection The Springs of Affection - out of print in the UK (predictably), but far more deserving of attention than many new books I see. The best stories are the half-dozen about Rose and Hubert Derdon, a Dublin couple in the mid-20th century. Frustration, friction and stasis have never been so beautifully put. William Faulkner, fiction editor of the New Yorker where Brennan worked for much of her life, said, "as a study of one kind of unhappy marriage, these stories are surely definitive." And who would dare to disagree?

I came to blogging in early 2007, having been a member of various book forums for years. I wanted a place of peace and quiet to think - hence Asylum. I think the exchange of ideas and recommendations that bloggers engage in has led me to read (a) more books in translation, and (b) more books by women, both of which I feel richer for having.

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Jackie: My guilty pleasure is cookbooks. I love cooking, especially when combined with chemistry to form molecular gastronomy. I’m normally happy cooking traditional food, but when I have the time I love to experiment with more unusual techniques. The only reason I feel guilty is because they cost so much. My current favourite is Bentley by Brent Savage, which is a stunning book to look at as well as one that contains many fantastic recipes.

John: Like other contributors to previous series, I don't really have guilty pleasures, being of the mind that nobody should be made to feel (to quote Kurt Vonnegut) "like something the cat drug in" over what they like. And I've sat here for half an hour trying, in vain, to think of any favourites of mine that are outside my usual field.

So I'll plump, perhaps sneakily, for Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's Tiddler: the Storytelling Fish. I love reading this book to my 3½-year-old son perhaps more than any other. True, I don't get to do my James-Mason-as-the-snake as with The Gruffalo, and I don't get to sing out of tune at the top of my voice as with Tabby McTat, but it's got such intricate and fast-moving rhymes, and such relentless rhythm, that I have been known to slip it into his bedtime selection in place of his own choices, just so I can have the pleasure of reading it all over again. Its only rival in this respect is Dr Seuss's Sleep Book, which has the advantage of being so long that it does actually send him to sleep.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

John, on Jackie's choices: For a moment I thought this was Scott Pack, who likes both Horwood and The Time Traveler's Wife, but if the Niffenegger is the 'early adulthood' selection, well, old man Pack is far too ancient to have read that at that stage in his life. It was published in 2003, so I'm guessing my partner must be no older than their late 20s...

I'd never heard of Z for Zachariah, but it sounds like good, bleak, Wyndhamesque fun. Duncton Wood suggests an animal lover, or, along with Z for Zachariah, someone with a nascent interest in fantasy or the uncanny. Rohinton Mistry is a wonderful epic storyteller, whose books are full of heart and lively characters, and I think that this and The Time Traveler's Wife indicate someone who likes a strong involving storyline, even if it's not told in a linear way.

The last choice is entirely unexpected! A recipe book from a high-end Sydney restaurant? This makes me, rather obviously, think of someone Australian, and with a lot more patience and energy than me, and the only blogger I can think of off the top of my head who matches that description is Kim Forrester (Kimbofo), but she appeared in the last series (and chose Robert C. O'Brien too!), so I'm all out of ideas...

Jackie, on John's choices: The publication dates for these books are quite revealing. I think that the person who selected them is slightly older than me. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that they are 38-years-old. The inclusion of Tiddler indicates they have had exposure to children (or at least children’s books) in the last few years. I imagine they have children, one of which is around 5-years-old. The books are all quite gentle so I think whoever selected them is a quiet, kind individual who doesn’t like to do anything too dangerous. They probably have a cat and enjoy home baking.

Saturday 27 October 2012

My Life in Books - Series Three!

As I mentioned a while ago, I've got another series of My Life in Books all ready to go.  This is the third series - the first was March 2011, the second was March 2012, and although I intended to wait until March 2013 for Series Three, I realised that I couldn't wait that long.  And you all seemed to enjoy before too, so... it seems I now run a spring and an autumn series!

For those who didn't see previous series (and you can catch up with them here) I copied the idea from the BBC series of the same name - bloggers, in pairs, pick favourite and important books from different stages of their lives.  My twist on it is that these choices were emailed to their co-participant, who then tried to guess what sort of person the blogger was from what they read...

All 14 bloggers I approached said yes, which was lovely - and there are some wonderful suggestions coming up for you this week.  By the end of the week you should have 70 recommendations (well, one Victorian novel did come up a lot.)  I'm going to be away until Wednesday, so hopefully things will all appear neatly and in the right place - if formatting goes awry, it'll have to wait til then to get fixed...

I'm hoping the bloggers will pop by during the week and reply to your comments - do comment, whether you've read the books, or want to - and I'll hop in to the comment discussions when I'm back.

The first pair will appear on Monday, and it'll run through to Sunday.  Over to them!

Thursday 25 October 2012

Persephone 100 (or, how I accidentally became part of their postal team)

Happy 100th title, Persephone Books!

I always use this photo when I blog about Persephone...
I've lived in three houses since this one!
(but I just like this picture so much...)

It really is an amazing achievement - Persephone have brought 100 neglected books (well, 99 and Flush by Virginia Woolf... teehee) back into print, and many of us have read at least one of their titles over the years.  I have them to thank for my arrival in the blogosphere, actually, albeit rather indirectly.  Here goes my chain of actions, from how-I-discovered-Persephone, to how-I-started-blogging...  Prepare yourself for lots of sentences which start with 'I'.

  • I grew up loving Richmal Crompton's William books.
  • I stumbled across her novel Family Roundabout in a secondhand bookshop (in an early edition) and thought I'd try it.
  • I loved it.
  • I saw a Persephone edition of Family Roundabout in Pershore library. (Incidentally, when I was 16 they turned me down for a Saturday job. I feel like writing to them now and saying that I've worked for the BEST LIBRARY IN THE UK [probably] for five years.  Bitter, me?)
  • I read a review of Family Roundabout on Amazon by one Lyn Baines.
  • In those days Amazon included reviewers' email addresses, so I emailed Lyn to enthuse about the book.
  • She told me about an online book group which discussed Persephone titles.
  • I joined... This was in early 2004, when I was 18.
  • About three years later, various people from the group started setting up blogs - including Elaine and Lisa.
  • I decided to follow suit!  And here we are.  Lots of lovely coincidences led to this blog... and how very different my life would be without it.

But that's far from the only wonderful gift Persephone Books have inadvertently given me (we'll get onto the ones they, er, advertently gave me) - what wonderful books!   I've read 41 of their 100 titles (or 42 or their 101, if we include the biography of Elizabeth Taylor) - giving me so much delight for the future.  Many of those were read before I started blogging, but if you select 'Persephone' from my drop-down publisher menu on the left-hand side, you can read the reviews I've put up of Persephone titles.

If you want any suggestions for which to read next - or which to read first, if you've never read a Persephone book - ask in the comments, and I'll do my best to help you out.  Hopefully I know the books well enough to suggest one, so if you tell me what sort of thing you're after, I might well be able to help... that seems to make more sense than just listing off all my favourites.

Now onto the second part of the title to this post!

I was in the British Library last Thursday, reading the play of Miss Hargreaves - so much fun!  (I had no idea that a copy would be there, since it was never published, but apparently they have all the plays submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for approval - thanks so much Tanya for suggesting I check.)  I finished earlier than I expected, so I wandered over to Lamb's Conduit Street to say hello to Nicola.  I'd promised to pop in for a cuppa next time I was in the area, you see.  Little did I know that it was envelope-stuffing-day!  Nicola didn't seem at all surprised to see me, though, and I'd joined half a dozen lovely ladies around a table in the middle of the shop, and started labelling envelopes.  The main sending out of biannuallies is done by a company, but the 4000 international customers are still served by hand - I was stickering surnames 'C' and 'L', and saw a couple of names I recognised (Cate Lombardo, and Claire from The Captive Reader - hello ladies!)  I had a really lovely afternoon, it was great fun, and Nicola very kindly gave me a copy of the Persephone 2013 Diary and Persephone Book 100 - the Persephone Short Stories.  Thrilled doesn't even cover it!

I remember once hearing that Persephone might stop after 100 books - thank goodness they aren't.  I'm really looking forward to the Persephone Lecture in November (are any of you going?) and being in a room of Persephone enthusiasts will be a complete treat.

Oh, final tangent - while in London I had the great joy of having afternoon tea at Miranda's flat - all baked by her, and completely delicious - and got to see Donna, Rachel, and Polly too.  Such fun!  The picture shows Polly, me, Rachel, and Miranda (Donna being behind the camera) - and what's left of the spread!  (Hope it's ok to post this picture, my friends!)  As Rachel wrote on her blog, it was a reminder of how lucky we are to find fun, lovely people with common bookish interests - I always love these gatherings.  If any bloggers or blog-readers are ever heading to Oxford and fancy a natter in a coffee shop, just give me an email!

Hope you're having a great week - my cold has almost gone, and I'm reading several great books, so I'm feeling rather cheery at the moment.  Off to read some more!

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Great British Bake Off: The Final!

It's been a while - because I went to London, and came back with a cold (I'm still rather beleaguered with it, but I'm powering through before they remove the episode from iPlayer) - but here I am with the recap of the GBBO final!  I've had such fun writing these recaps, and I'm delighted with the good response they've had here.  I was a bit worried I'd scare you all away with my snark - but hopefully you can tell that, alongside all that, I love this programme and these bakers.

For the first time, I know the result before writing the recap - but I'll keep it under my hat until we get to the end, just in case you don't.  Right... on with the show!

Last week we lost... no, sorry... give me a minute... hmm... someone.  Oh, Danny, yes! (ahem) and we're left with three - Scottish James, Hyperventilating John, and the bridge between the 70s and today, The Brend.  I'm Team James, and most of you seemed to be as well, judging on last week's comments.

This is the best shot I could get of all three.
James, sadly, is still in plain blue.
I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed.

We kick off with a retrospective of the previous nine weeks, including all manner of people I'd forgotten existed.  It's also a reminder of how dearly I loved Sarah-Jane and Cathryn.  The brief snippets of the finalists, in this look-back, suggest that someone in production is keen to give them each catchphrases.  A bit late in the day to try that, but ok.  I missed what John's was, but James gets "I'm just prepping my cloots", and The Brend says "The male will get a coxcomb."  Not really the defining moments of the series, but does show that I'm not the only one who hopes for soundbites every episode.  I just wish The Brend had got "I WANT ABSOLUTE UNIFORMITY."

We amble through the highs and lows of the three remaining bakers, which is rather more interesting than last week's "The semi-final is quite close to the final" interview montage - and gives The Brend a chance to start on his self-congratulation.  "I think my track record has to make me a very, very strong contender to win," he asserts.  Has he never seen a reality show?  This is next to "It's not called America's Next Top Friend" in the list of what-not-to-say-if-you-want-to-win.  (Some of you will get that.)

Amusingly, Mel's voiceover is remarking on John's 'modern designs', while the camera lingers on his gingerbread Colosseum.  Hmm.  Not the most modern, is it?  John then babbles his way through a nightmare he had about the bake-off tent, which seems to revolve around faulty lighting.  Since he's had a bloody altercation with a food processor, the nightmare seems a little tame in comparison.  Still, we get an Anxious Apron Shot, and that's got to be worth something.


The Brend has to settle for Anxious Glasses Adjustment, which somehow makes him seem more like a cartoon supervillain than ever.

The Signature Challenge is a pithivier.  Which is a great word to say, and Sue doesn't stint on the comic potential of sounding-like-she's-lisping.  I love how she is treating the whole series as though performing a sideshow on a pier, which no pun left under-laboured.  I half expected her to turn up with a Punch and Judy stall this week - perhaps with Mary and Paul's faces painted whimsically on the dolls?  Oh well, better save something for Series 4.

The VTs this week are visits to the bakers' homes and families - what a shame Cathryn has left, we could finally have solved the problem of whether or not she lived in a tent on the side of a road.  Scottish James is, Hayley tells me, from Shetland.  Or The Shetlands, maybe.  Well, it's still Scotland (thank goodness, or I'd have to give him a new innovative nickname) and it's beautiful.

He encourages everyone to apply next year - and I am seriously considering it.  But then I discover that his girlfriend is called Fenella, and I start to doubt his life advice.  She stares at the camera, and says 'like' a lot, but seems nice.  He ends the segment saying 'Knowledge is Power', which makes me wonder if The Brend has successfully inveigled him into a Fascist cult.

Meanwhile they're all making rough puff pastry, which isn't much of a spectator sport, and the programme seems to realise this.  We scoot past a clip of Mary and Paul dithering by John's workstation, and we're swiftly back to My Family And Other Animals segments.

Poor John - his parents don't seem very supportive.  I did really feel for him, since they all seem to wish he'd hurry up and finish the baking so that he could become a lawyer.

"Baking ain't gonna keep me in pearls, son!"

His Mum does basically say she'd hoped John would leave early, so that he could do more revision.  Perhaps parents nagging sons to work harder at university is just a touchy subject for me... I did suggest that Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife pay careful attention to this bit! (Only kidding!)

I haven't told you anything about the pithiviers, have I?  James and John are both making something involving meat, and The Brend is making potato, pepper, and spinach pithivier.  I'm in danger of growing to like him, for his thoughtfulness towards vegetarians, if nothing else.  Sue is astonished by the amount of garlic he is using -

- but The Brend is, as usual, unresponsive to humour and informs her that he knows what he's doing, thankyouverymuch.  Despite previous home VTs suggesting The Brend lives alone, it turns out he has a partner called Jason, who looks about thirty years younger than him.  Jason comments that baking is a way of connecting with one's childhood. [Insert joke about The Brend's age here.  Maybe make reference to dinosaur eggs.]

And The Brend suggests that the best baker will be the one who can keep his emotions in check.  As a properly repressed Briton, I feel like this gives me a fighting chance for a future series.

Just so it doesn't seem like I'm ignoring the baking process altogether, here's an irrelevant shot of a pithivier being made.

I can't get too excited about savoury challenges, I'm afraid.  And is it just me, or is this rather an easy challenge for the final?  Notwithstanding Mel's dire warnings that, if insufficiently sealed, the pithivier will leak.  This sounds, from her usual tone of doom and gloom, like a tragedy second only to the opening of Pandora's Box.  Oh, Mel, I'll miss your absurd attempts to inject drama into proceedings.  As Claire amusingly said in the comments from my recap of a previous episode, without GBBO we'd have "no idea of the many perils involved in baking a biscuit or a simple cake".

The Brend scores his first Oustandingly Obnoxious point of the episode, when he comments that his presentation is better than James's.  In this particular case, it definitely is, but it's still rather an unpleasant thing to say.  Although, thinking about it, the cameraman probably asked him a direct question about it.  Oh, you are sly, BBC2. SLY.

Plus, The Brend's looks rather as though it were inspired by Little Weed from Bill and Ben, no?

Out come the pithiviers - after another one of those "Hurry up bakers!" bits from Sue that are clearly filmed altogether sometime after the rest of the episode - perhaps explaining their growing insanity over the weeks, as they struggle for something to say.  This time Sue claims that Mel is wandering nakedly through the room, with orange segments.  Sure, why not?  And then comes plinky-plonky music and establishing shots of hazy flowers.

I'm going to miss these.  They're so pointless, but quite pretty, and there's always the faint hope that they'll accidentally include a badger sett or a background shot of David Attenborough stumbling through a thicket. (Did I ever tell you about the time that my friend Lorna and I were in the establishing shots of some programme on Gladstone?)

The Brend is congratulated by Mary on his pithivier's meticulous appearance; Paul loves its base, and the flavour is also complimented.  And he was right about the garlic, blast him.

John does well too - no soggy bottom in sight, and Mary loves the flavour. "It's got a good flake," observes Paul.  Now, does that really save time, compared to "It's flaky" or "Good flakiness"?  No, Paul, no it does not.  But at this stage in the game, I shouldn't expect any better.  BAD SPEAK, Paul, poor worditude.

Scottish James doesn't come through quite so well - Mary speaks of the 'good flake', which horrifies me - but there is a soggy bottom.  Paul says that it's seasoned well - stealing the one and only critique ever offered in Masterchef - and Mary refers to the huge temptation to overfry chicken.  As temptations go, it's one I find fairly easy to overcome.

(Check your bingo sheet accordingly.)

In post-judgement interviews, The Brend awards himself ten out of ten.  Chuh.

The Blind Challenge!  Which, it turns out, is called The Technical Challenge.  Sorry for misinforming you about that for weeks.  It also features possibly the best moment - not only of the series, but of our time/space continuum to date.  (There, Peter, physics!)  Sue tells Mary 'off you trot - actually trot, please' and (GIVE THIS WOMAN A DAMEHOOD) she does.  A static image cannot contain how wonderful this is.

Anything that follows this (in the programme or in my life) will come as something of an anticlimax, but I am impressed by what they have to make.  Fondant fancies!  My old housemate Hannah, who is an exceptionally good baker, made these once - simply because they were the most difficult thing she could think to make.  I used to love them, and my grandparents often had them, but now I find them rather too sweet and creamy for my merely moderate sweet tooth.  Also, bakers - they cost like £1.50 for six.  It's not worth it.

I learnt this week that Paul calls Mary 'Bezza'.

Nobody seems to have much of a clue what they're doing, and the recipe is even sparser than usual.  John makes that fatal transition from enthusiastic-reality-show-contestant to thinks-they're-filming-their-own-show.  Do you know how you can tell this moment?  The third person plural wanders in.  "We need to keep this butter cream nice and smooth," babbles John.  Oh dear.  (Also, he is using an electric mixer to make butter icing, which is absolutely absurd.  I would never use an electric mixer at any stage in baking a cake, unless it involved whipped cream or meringue somehow.  Man up, bakers.)

The Brend says "Cover me, I'm going in" - presumably thinking that he's back in 'nam.  Awkward.

And John is listening to his cake again.  The final seems to be turning everyone's head.

"The sponge TOLD me to burn down the tent."

The bakers all seem to struggle with cutting 25 pieces of cake from a square sponge.  25 is a square number, people!  John gets fixed on the idea that the fondant fancies must be cubed - and disposes of a lot of his baked sponge.  Hmm.

And then they start adding the fondant around the outside.  I don't remember them saying what's in this - is it just icing sugar and water?  And food colouring and flavouring, of course.  Coating the fondant fancies is apparently the trickiest part of the process.  The Brend initially warns against 'dipping them bodily', which seems unnecessarily somatic, but ultimately all three bakers opt for dipping - although 'dipping' is rather too delicate a word for the clumsy, messy way in which they fling their hands into the mixture.  John even mouths 'help' to the camerman at one point.

Even The Brend is struggling.  I'd have thought Fondant Fancies - being garish and dated - would have been right up his street.  My words alone cannot express his difficulties.  This sorry image sums them up:

Sue leans over The Brend and teases him... he does his best to ignore her.  Plus ça change.  She (brilliantly) observes that it is more Generation Game than French Patisserie.  Next, Mary and Paul will eat as many as they can, blindfolded with their arms tied behind their back, while tapping out Ode on a Grecian Urn in Morse Code with their feet.  (Er, Spin-off Alert!  Who wouldn't pay to watch that?)

None of the displays look particularly impressive... John doesn't disappoint with his supply of half-hearted, scarcely relevant platitudes - "What's done is done and cannot be undone."  Thanks, John.  Never change.

Mary and Paul literally snigger over them...

Mary is disappointed with all of them.  "I wouldn't say that this is a very high standard at all, for all of you."  It's a little heartbreaking.  She should do drugs awareness videos - nobody would do anything illegal, lest Mary do that slight frown, and pained voice.  Oh - The Brend and John share last place, and James scrapes into first place.

The judges and presenters sit around a table and unite in saying that it's all level pegging at this point.  And it does genuinely seem to be - rather than the usual in reality competitions, when everyone agrees in forced voices that it could go any way, when it's entirely obvious who has won.  At this point, my money is still on James.  Sue, incidentally, makes a witticism about James being able to prescribe beta blockers.  Mel is confused, and Mary (how I love her) spells it out in tones best suited for a peculiarly unintelligent reception class: "Because he's a DOCTOR."

Showstopper Challenge time!  They're making chiffon cakes, inspired by notable moments in 2012, to be served at a GBBO Village Fete "complete with limp bunting, and torrential rain."  I'd never heard of chiffon cakes before (their main characteristic is being fatless), but Mel assures me they are 'notoriously fickle' and 'volatile'.  I predicted sentient cakes weeks ago, and now they're going to happen!

The Brend is making a colossal tiered cake inspired by family reunions - he has been mending rifts in his family.  He's going to make it difficult for me to dislike him this week, isn't he?

John is making a 'Heaven and Hell' cake, because his year has gone up and down.  Well, that's vague.  And there go my hopes that everyone will make three-dimensional busts of the Queen in cake.  JUBILEE YEAR, PEOPLE.

Scottish James, bless him, is making FIVE CAKES, one representing each of the four UK nations, and one representing their unity.  Apparently in a year dominated by discussions of Scotland becoming independent, unity is a key feature...  (This, by the by, reminds me of my final project for my Food Technology GCSE, where I decided to make eight vegan sponges.  Goodness knows why.  Sorry, family.)

"Even though they've finished their sponge mix," warns Mel, "every move the bakers now make can still radically alter their chiffon's texture."  That sounds like over-statement to me.  John's frantic wanderings back and forth are especially worrying, if it is true.  As is the unusual baking equipment he requests - cue-tips.

Why were these even in the baking tent?  Surely there is no shop nearby - not if the aerial establishing shots of Nature Red In Tooth And Claw are to be believed.


Here is James's cake, in mid-fall... I think it's Northern Ireland.  Make of that what you will.

Curiously, given the presenters' desire to over-dramatise the most mundane moments of the baking process, Sue refuses to get animated about this genuine mishap.  She comforts him much in the manner of a mother clapping her hands in joy to avert a toddler from the pain of a scraped knee.

The fete is set up, coconut shies and all (I've been to dozens of village fetes in my life, and never seen a coconut shy) and our past contestants give us their tips for the winner.  They're fairly evenly divided between all three bakers, rendering this segment pointless, but it is rather nice to see them all.  Especially, of course, darling Sarah-Jane and Cathryn.  They plump for John and James respectively, by the way.

Gone, but never forgotten.

Cakes begin to emerge from ovens, decorations begin, and James is (predictably) lagging behind everyone else.  John uses unorthodox methods...

and things seem to be going wrong with James's Turkish Delight St. George's Cross...

It look quite plasticky, and apparently James has never made it before.  Oh, James, why?  His first mistake, of course, was making anything Turkish Delight flavoured seeing as it is, as we know, the food of the White Witch.  And disgusting.  In the end it is discarded for a raspberry St. George's Cross.  What a fun sentence to write.

Mel declares the final baking competition OVER.  John does this:

I still don't know why.  If I'd seen it for the first time in my poorly state, I'd have assumed that Lemsip had taken control of my senses, leaving me with a cold-induced hallucination.  As it is... nope, no idea.  Are rabbits notorious for finishing baking on time?

And then, dear readers, The Brend breaks my heart.  He has an incredibly moving interview, where he is rendered speechless by emotion, about his life over the past decades.  This is just like when Danny went and made me feel guilty about teasing her... oh, you guys.  Love you really.

Luckily James and John are on hand to give The Brend a hug - which mostly serves to demonstrate how tiny Brendan is.  And how co-ordinated they are with their clothes.  And how much chocolate John got over himself whilst making his chiffon cake.

I like to think they'll all stay penpals after this.  Or follow each other on Twitter, which I suppose is the 21st Century's equivalent.

The final judging begins...

John's Heaven and Hell cake (with 'Tartarus' etched on top, believe it or not) is declared stunning by Mary, and (after a worrying pause, where Paul starts scraping the cake with a fork, and I worry that he may have lost his marbles) the judges love the texture and flavour.

I think The Brend's Family Reunion cake looks rather silly and top-heavy, but the judges like its appearance - and the fact that, for once, it is not over-decorated.  Even-layers, nice-bake, etc. And Paul thinks the sponge is like a cloud.  Maybe I spoke too soon on that losing-marbles thing.

I promised you a picture of Mary's Pirate Side-of-Mouth Eating, and she did not disappoint.  Love you, Mary.

And finally, Scottish James's dozens of cakes.

They try the middle one.  Oh dear, Paul thinks it's too dry.  Mary thinks it's 'too cakey' - although how a cake can be that, I don't know.  Scotland goes down almost as badly.  Mel chirpily suggests, from the sidelines, that they try Northern Ireland next - but before this becomes a baked tour of Europe, the judges draw their critique to a close.  Everyone seems a bit sad that James has fared quite poorly, not least me.  But at least he's feeding most of the assembled crowd all by himself.

Mary, Paul, Mel, and Sue assemble to chat about the bakers.  Mary proudly attests that "they are all home bakers - they don't make scenes, they cope."  What a wonderfully British compliment!  It makes me, as a home baker myself, feel like I'm part of the D-Day landings, or at least Dad's Army.

So, who has won?

At this point, my money was on The Brend.  But, although I've grown rather to respect him, I still really wanted James or John to win...

Drum roll, please.  Just tap your hands on the desk, for me.  Humour me, please.

And the winner is...

It's only flippin' John!

Hurrah!  My friend Ellie and I cheered and clapped when this was announced, somewhat to the bafflement of our friend Grace (who had joined us, but not watched all the previous episodes, or developed our distaste for The Brend.)

Did he deserve to win?  Well, possibly not.  He scraped his way through nearly every episode - The Brend was more consistent, and James was more innovative, but nobody tried harder than John, or wanted to win more.  Bless his wee face!

I shan't bore you with the 'Since the Bake Off' slideshow, which shows that most of the contestants are doing whatever they were doing before it all started, but I will leave you with this fantastic piece of news...

Thanks to everyone who has read my recap posts, and encouraging me to write more - they've been great fun, albeit surprisingly time-consuming to put together.  Back to books from now on, but I daresay I'll be recapping Series Four next year - and, who knows, might even apply to be on it!