Thursday 30 October 2014

Not spooky at all

I really don't like Halloween, for quite a few reasons. I don't like the whole celebration-of-evil root that the day has [I think I may be wrong about this part - see Hayley's useful comment!], and I don't like the idea that children should be able to demand goods with menaces in people's homes. I don't like the fact that many old or vulnerable people will probably spend their evenings scared in their homes. I don't like that vicarages get targeted by egg-throwing youths. ('Pranks' in general seem pretty unkind to me.) Most of all, I don't like that the creatures I'm scared of are put in decorations all over town.

SO, enough curmudgeonliness from me. I want to ask for your anti-Halloween book recommendations. Nothing scary, nothing murdery, nothing set in October. Basically, the kindest, nicest, funniest, loveliest book you can think of... any ideas?

(At the moment I'm re-reading Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns, which I love, but which doesn't quite fit that bill.)

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers

Time for another link to a Shiny New Books review. And this one is an absolute joy - any fans of P.G. Wodehouse or early Hollywood will love this one. It's the 1914 novel Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers.

As is my practice, I'll give you the first paragraph of the review, and then send you over to Shiny New Books if you'd like to read more...

It’s fun occasionally to read a book that doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. And it would be impossible for Love Insurance (1914) by Earl Derr Biggers to take itself seriously for a moment – before a few dozen pages are finished, the reader has had to buy a number of extremely unlikely situations – but that all adds to the pleasure. It is unmistakably of its time (if A.A. Milne had written a novel in the 1910s, when he was still being guiltlessly insouciant, it might have been a lot like this) but that doesn’t mean it can’t still charm a century later.

The rest of the review is here...

Sunday 26 October 2014

Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

Apparently I bought Pigeon Pie (1940) by Nancy Mitford in Clun on 15th August 2011. I have no idea where Clun is and no recollection of having gone there, but I suppose I must have done! I read the novel quite a few months ago, so forgive any patchy memory (I'm linking to some great reviews at the end!)

For all my Mitfordmania, I have actually only read one Nancy Mitford novel (The Pursuit of Love); despite very much enjoying it, and having lots of others on hand, I still haven't actually read any more. So I picked up this purchase from mysterious Clun, and started. The first thing I noticed was the author's note:
I hope that anybody who is kind enough to read it in a second edition will remember that it was written before Christmas 1939. Published on 6 May 1940 it was an early and unimportant casualty of the real war which was then beginning - Nancy Mitford, Paris, 1951
Well! That's quite the start, isn't it? As Nancy warns, this novel is about the phoney war - that bit at the beginning of war where everyone prepared themselves for an onslaught, and not very much happened. And so she is able to be rather casual about the war, in a way that would look rather scandalous even by the time of publication. And the heroine of Pigeon Pie is nothing if not casual. Lady Sophia Garfield is a flippant socialite who has married for money, finds her husband a bore, and lives for the petty squabbles she has with the other doyennes of London society.

I do rather love this compact description of the phoney war:
Rather soon after the war had been declared, it became obvious that nobody intended it to begin. The belligerent countries were behaving like children in a round game, picking up sides, and until the sides had been picked up the game could not start.
England picked up France, Germany picked up Italy. England beckoned to Poland, Germany answered with Russia. Then Italy's Nanny said she had fallen down and grazed her knee, running, and mustn't play. England picked up Turkey, Germany picked up Spain, but Spain's Nanny said she had internal troubles, and must sit this one out. England looked towards the Oslo group, but they had never played before, except like Belgium, who had hated it, and the others felt shy. America, of course, was too much of a baby for such a grown-up game, but she was just longing to see it played. And still it would not begin.
The things that do begin, in Pigeon Pie, are rather extraordinary. A much-loved singer is killed, and Sophia finds herself swept up in an unlikely espionage and kidnap plot. None of it is treated particularly seriously - it is definitely silly rather than tense, and a wry eye is never far from the narrative. The denouement is just as unlikely as all the rest, and treads an awkward line between satire and failure...

I love Mitford's tone, and I love her observations about the in-fighting of the upper classes. In another novel, Sophia could have been great fun.  But I'm not sure that Pigeon Pie (for me) is ever more than quite good. And that isn't particularly because of insensitivity (although that warning was perhaps more pertinent in 1951) but because Mitford is turning her hand to a genre at which she is not an expert.

Others who got Stuck into this book

"The tone is maybe a little uneven, but when the wit works it really does sparkle." - Jane, Fleur Fisher in Her World

"It feels unreal and flippant; the language makes it seem a little like Enid Blyton for adults." - Karyn, A Penguin A Week

"A very enjoyable tale, filled with the usual Mitford acerbic wit, ridiculous characters and finely observed minutiae of upper class inter war life." - Rachel, Book Snob

Saturday 25 October 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I've been rather under the weather this week (those reviews were thankfully pre-scheduled!) so haven't been around the blogs as much as I'd have liked... but I'm still going to rustle up a few links and whatnot for you.

1.) The Persephone Prize - have you entered? Are you going to? I suppose we should keep these things strictly confidential, so I shall just say that Mum and I have both entered (or are planning on entering) - the mother vs son competition starts right here!

2.) There are lots of Shiny New Books reviews of mine that I've not pointed to yet, but I'll stick one in here that isn't a date for A Century of Books (which I have officially given up finishing this year, but which will be finished eventually): Bed Manners, a spoof etiquette guide from the 1930s. It's every bit as fun as that sounds.

3.) Early announcement that My Life in Books will be coming back soon(ish)! I've had most of the answers in, so I need to chase some people and match up some partners (which I usually do earlier, but... not this time.)

Thursday 23 October 2014

Have you read...?

I was listening to Carmen Callil on Desert Island Discs (she being the founder of Virago), and she gave a very eloquent reason why the book she'd take to the desert island would be Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson.

Has anybody read it?

You can listen to the whole interview here.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

My book group recently read The Soul of Kindness (1964) by Elizabeth Taylor - I have a feeling I recommended it, although can never quite remember - and I don't think we've ever had a more divided discussion. Some thought the whole thing uneventful and boring; some thought it a brilliantly subtle novel about realistic people and the way they interact. Guess which I was?

Well, if you've read my previous reviews of Elizabeth Taylor - you can see them all by picking her from that dropdown menu of authors over on the left, should you so wish - you'll probably have guessed that I was in the latter camp. (As a character thinks: 'men, she knew, are very interested in detailed descriptions of ordinary things'. Curiously unlike the usual division of men and women in stereotype - the masculine grand epic vs. the feminine domestic hearth.) The Soul of Kindness is an extraordinary novel and, just like her others, almost impossible to write well about.

The first thing I have learned with Elizabeth Taylor is that you can't read her quickly. Well, you can - but so much is lost. Because not much happens, and it's easy to skim through the calm conversations and quiet movements, and miss the spectrum of emotion playing under the surface, so cleverly told by Taylor.

The novel opens with a wedding. Flora isn't paying much attention to her husband; she is feeding doves (note their influence on the beautiful cover to my 1966 Reprint Society copy):
Towards the end of the bridegroom's speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she had caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either.
That lack of self-awareness and observation is the central thread of the novel. Flora is the 'soul of kindness' of the title - as another character says, "To harm anyone is the last thing she'd ever have in mind." She is a blonde beauty, doted on by her mother, surrounded by people (mother, husband, friend, housekeeper) who never dream of crossing her, and who do not see any darkness in her. For, indeed, there is no darkness in her. I thought the novel might be about a craftily vindictive woman, but Flora is just monumentally naive - with a naivety either born of selfishness, or a selfishness born of naivety. She wants to help people. She is (as Hilary notes in her fab review, linked below) not unlike Austen's Emma - although Flora is less meddlesome. She just suggests things and engineers things, without seeming to give any great effort, and... mild disaster follows.

A marriage that shouldn't have happened. A union between two friends that will never happen because the man is gay. The encouragement to a young man that he is a talented actor, when he is hopeless and will only meet failure on that path. Everything Flora does is well-meaning. There is a moment of crisis (I shan't say what), but... by the end of the novel, most people haven't changed enormously. Human nature doesn't follow a brief and convenient narrative structure.

For that is what Taylor observes and depicts so brilliantly: truthful human behaviour. Some people at book group found the characters poorly drawn, and I do agree that we see them chiefly from the outside rather than the inside - but that is an authorial choice and (I think) a good and acceptable one. There are wonderful scenes where she draws up the difference between what people say and what they mean - and what other people think they mean. It is so (that word again) subtle, and done extremely skilfully. Perhaps the best, and certainly the most agonising, where those between Patrick and Frankie - Patrick being in love with the youthful, callous Frankie, and anxious for any possible attention from him, taking what he is thrown so gratefully.

Oh, and Mrs Secretan (Flora's mother) is the best depiction I have seen of a hypochondriac - usually they are hysterical or selfish, but Taylor's portrait shows the terror at the heart of the true hypochondriac, particularly the one who dreads the doctor. I speak as one who knows...

I should add that there are moments of lovely humour. I enjoyed this a lot, about Flora (and that naivety):
She sat gazing in front of her. On a table at her side was a piece of knitting which had not grown for days, and the book by Henry Miller Patrick Barlow had lent her, which she was reading with such mild surprise. ('What does this word mean, Richard? 'Truly? Well I suppose it had to be called something.' How had she lived so long without knowing? he wondered.)
All in all, I thought The Soul of Kindness a brilliant example of an exceptional writer. There are, of course, different books for different moods. When I wrote about My Sister Eileen recently, I shouted my love for books that are unashamedly lovely. Well, this is not that. It's for a different mood. But, in the right mood, you could hardly do better.

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

"What I love about this novel is how subversive it is." - Hilary, Vulpes Libris

"I found the characters not entirely convincing and actually quite irritating." - Karen, Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

"The subtlety of Elizabeth Taylor’s writing is masterly." - Ali, Heavenali

Tuesday 21 October 2014

The Literary Conference - César Aira

I guess my blog is, if anything, a bit of a celebration of well-written middlebrow, mostly English, mostly oldish, and mostly about tea cups and cats. Fair? Well, I also love to try things that are a bit different sometimes (especially - scholar that I am - if they are short, so the experiment needn't be all-encompassing). So, when I went off to a literary conference in the summer, I thought I'd take The Literary Conference (2006) by the Argentinian author César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver (one of three Aira novels sent to me by Hamish Hamilton a while ago, in a boxset of three with the cover designs below).

Somehow I got distracted, and only finished it recently - which, considering it's only 90 pages long, isn't very impressive, but it isn't because I didn't like it. I was delightfully baffled and bemused by the whole thing. It's surrealism mixed with postmodernism, with a dollop of science-fiction for good measure.

Our hero - and seldom has the term been used with less justice - has the same name as the author, and is off to attend a literary conference. We see extremely little of this. Instead we see his arrogance, his venom against rivals, and his determination to succeed. All are seen in the curious opening, where he discovers the secret of the 'Macuto Line' - a rope that has pirates' treasure on the end of it, under the sea, only nobody has worked out how to solve it. Guess who does?

But that is an overture to the main event. The protagonist wants to clone his rival, and has - since he is, he is willing to confess, a genius - devised a cloning machine, and secures a cell from Carlos Fuentes by means of a trained wasp.
Upon my return to the hotel, the excitement of the past few hours reached its anticlimax. The first part of the operation, the most demanding part for me, was over: I had obtained a cell from Carlos Fuentes, I had placed it inside the cloning machine, and I had left the machine to operate under optimum conditions. If you add to this the fact that the previous day I had solved the secular enigma of the Macuto Line, I could feel momentarily satisfied and think about other things. I had a few days to do just that. Cloning a living being is not like blowing glass. It happens on its own, but it takes time. Even though the process is prodigiously accelerated, it requires almost a week, according to the human calendar, for it must reconstruct on a small scale the entire geology of the evolution of life.
The climax of the novella is undoubtedly the way in which this clone goes awry. I want to say what happens so much - it is so strange, and yet extremely fitting (and goes back neatly to the beginning) - but I won't do Aira the disservice of spoiling the ending, in case you choose to read it.

I have no real idea what I thought about The Literary Conference. It did remind me of the two novels I've read by Adolfo Bioy Casares - in that it pretty much confused me, without alienating me. Perhaps it was more of a tourist venture into the tastes of others, but... it was fun, nonetheless.

Sunday 19 October 2014

My Sister Eileen - Ruth McKenney

There aren't enough unashamedly lovely books around. Too many modern books (it seems) feel they have to be either trivial or miserable, as though the only way to be literary was to be grim. There is a market for uplifting books, but these tend to be insultingly light reads (pastel-coloured romances) or forgettable books you buy from the pile by the till. Comedy, meanwhile, is apparently represented by arch or melancholic writers whose novels strike me as either entirely unamusing (I'm looking at you, Howard Jacobson) or tragedy decorated with jokes.

This is a broadbrush and uninformed portrait of modern literature, of course, but my sense is that we are experiencing a good decade for literary and experimental fiction with its serious face on, but missing out on well written joie de vivre. The exception that comes to mind might be David Sedaris' non-fiction, which is very funny, but even this is decidedly melancholic.

So, what am I suggesting as an antidote? It's every bit as lovely as Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages and Herbert Jenkins' Patricia Brent, Spinster - it's Ruth McKenney's My Sister Eileen (1938). You might have guessed that from the title of this blog post.

I bought it a little while ago, after seeing it fleetingly mentioned in a review of Joanna Rakoff's excellent My Salinger Year, and I was excited when a beautiful copy arrived. Still, it felt like an indulgence to be saved, and I didn't dive straight in. My recent holiday felt like a very good opportunity to treat myself. As I expected, it's lovely and funny and good.

It's non-fiction - of the elaborated and exaggerated variety, I imagine - and is mostly about Ruth and Eileen's childhood, although there are also some chapters devoted to their time living in an extremely dingy New York basement (and it is this section, I believe, that is used in the film version - which I have bought but not yet watched).

Their childhood is certainly played for laughs - it is very amusing. I wasn't especially sold on the first chapter, which is about crying at the cinema (and the sisters' demand that a story should be entirely tragic, or it barely counted as a story at all). But from the second chapter onwards I was completely sold. The second chapter ('Hun-gah') details the sisters' attempts at amateur performances.

Eileen's only 'bit' was playing a 1920s song called 'Chloe' (Eileen is 'absolutely tone-deaf and has never been able to carry a tune, even the simplest one, in her whole life. She solved the difficulty by simply pounding so hard in the bass that she drowned herself out.') The infant Ruth, on the other hand, had a foray into acting - via an experimental drama teacher who allotted her the part of 'Hunger' (which, incidentally, was also her only line - to be repeated). There is a wonderful climax in a scene where the sisters have been asked to amalgamate their performances into one for their assembled relatives:

Eileen played and sang first. Just as the final notes of her bass monotone chant, "I GOT-TUH go wheah yew ARE," and the final rumble of the piano died away, I burst dramatically through the door, shouting "Hun-gah! Hun-gah!" and shaking my matted and snarled locks at my assembled relatives. My grandmother Farrel, who always takes everything seriously, let out a piercing scream.

Glorious.  And so the tales go on. We hear how Ruth was almost drowned by a Red Cross Lifesaving Examiner, how the sisters' father was obsessed with experimental washing machines, how they enlivened a camp bird-watching, etc. When they move to New York, these adventures turn to the complexities of a basement window that drunks would yell through, a cheating landlord, and (the story that inspires the cover), the time when Ruth - then a reporter - was followed for a day by the Brazilian Navy. It's so wonderfully silly and delightfully told. If it were not true (or at least based in truth) it might be criticised for being all over the place - but truth is not neatly arranged in logical or probable order, of course.

The Eileen of the title, incidentally, has another claim to notoriety - she married Nathanael West, and also died in the car crash that ended his life. This was actually two years after My Sister Eileen was published, so naturally it is not mentioned - but it lends a certain poignancy to the collection (and may influence the two sequels - one of which I now have, the other of which seems ungettable in the UK).

That moment of pathos aside, I think any lover of the Provincial Lady et al would also delight in this book - I certainly did, and was very glad to have found it.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I'm off for part of the weekend - to visit Jane Austen's house, no less - and so still haven't caught up with answering comments yet. I will soon! But I shan't leave you empty-handed; here are a few bits and pieces to tide you over.

1.) I wrote about A.A. Milne for the OxfordWords blog, which I've been intending to do ever since I started working at OUP.

2.) Margaret Kennedy Reading Week was good fun, and I've bought a copy of her book The Outlaws on Parnassus: on the art of the novel as a result of it. Enjoy a full round-up over at Jane/Fleur's.

3.) It's actually been ages since I submitted my DPhil thesis (last October) was vivaed (in January) and had my corrections approved (May) - but I still haven't had my graduation (November). I have, though, finally got my thesis bound. One copy has been submitted to the Bodleian; another is here:

Wednesday 15 October 2014

This Is The End by Stella Benson

A Shiny New Review from Shiny New Books - of an old book, now reprinted by Mike Walmer. I loved I Pose by Stella Benson (review here) and leapt at the chance of reading her next book, This Is The End. Even though I kept singing 'Skyfall' every time I picked it up...

Here's the beginning of my review:

One of the more unusual novelists being reprinted at the moment is Stella Benson. Her work is issued by Michael Walmer, a one-man publishing house that is reprinting various neglected novelists in the order their novels were originally published. This Is The End is Benson’s second (from 1917), and comes immediately before the one that is probably most remembered now,Living Alone, about very curious witches.
I want to say that This Is The End is not supernatural, but any definite statement about a Benson novel feels like a trap waiting to happen; the reader never quite knows which genre they’re reading, or what sort of response is required. Except that laughter will always be involved somewhere.

Monday 13 October 2014

My Name is Julia Ross

How do people feel about me writing film reviews? Is that something people would be in to? I tend just to post about the things I want to (witness: Song for a Sunday) and sometimes that turns into something unexpectedly popular (I never imagined anybody would want to read the Bake Off recaps, and now strangers - strangers plural, mind - come up to me at parties - party singular, actually - and tell me they like that.) But I guess the worlds of film and book review aren't miles apart, only I would consider myself something of an expert about books (if anything at all) and wouldn't about film.

Enough preamble. I'm going to write about My Name is Julia Ross, and we'll take it from there. By the by, a nice man called John writes a very book blog called Pretty Sinister Books which has regular film reviews, and he has written about My Name is Julia Ross here. But I actually came across the film when scrolling through the IMDB page for Dame May Whitty, seeing what else she had made.

My Name is Julia Ross is from 1945, and I watched it with my friend Andrea as part of the aptly-named Simon and Andrea's Film Club. The whole thing is available on YouTube (at the bottom of this post), although a DVD might still be available for all I know. It's based on a novel called The Woman in Red by Anthony Gilbert, whom I've never heard of (have you?) and is about Julia Ross (Nina Foch) who takes on an appointment as a secretary, and is drugged and kidnapped. When she awakes, she is in a clifftop house, and people are calling her Marion Hughes, claiming she is the wife of Ralph Hughes. They have recently moved to the village, and all the villagers know that Ralph's wife has suffered a breakdown, and doesn't know what she's saying...

The rest of the film documents Julia Ross's attempts to escape from the house - attempts that are repeatedly foiled, of course - and the viewer slowly learns why Ralph and his mother (the mother being played by Dame May) have brought Julia there. In the background, back where Julia was living in penury, are the rather lacklustre romantic hero Dennis and the rather wonderfully snipey housemaid.

To the modern viewer - perhaps even to the 1940s viewer - the actual plot is something of a cliché. It is interesting to see a drama where nothing grimmer or more inventive is needed than repeated unsuccessful escape plans (notes thrown through gates, sneaking into the back of cars, etc.). I don't know enough about film history to know how unusual this scenario would have been at the time, but it really isn't all that important. Of course she isn't going to escape half an hour into the film. What does matter is how it's shot - and it's really striking.

There are quite a few things in My Name is Julia Ross that make me think of Hitchcock - not least the looming out over the clifftop; the bedroom window is right on the edge. The setting is so stunning, and dramatic, and the film-maker (dir. Joseph H. Lewis) puts this to the best possible use.

Nina Foch is a very likeable heroine, if a little over the top at times, but it is the eerie calmness of Dame May Whitty that makes the mystery at the heart of the film so tense - not so much 'what will happen?' but 'why has it happened?' It might have been a more psychologically complex film if we hadn't seen the drugging - if we hadn't known whether or not Julia was right; if she could, in fact, be Marion - but even without this element, it's rather gripping.

I love watching films from this period - unsurprisingly, really - and it's interesting to find a thriller to watch alongside the Brief Encounters and Mrs Minivers with which we're already familiar.

Saturday 11 October 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hope you're all having a good weekend! Mine is disappearing all too quickly... and I've read only 20 pages of the book I was intending to finish. Oops.

Slightly different from usual this week, as I'm going to be entirely egotistical in this miscellany... these things are all me elsewhere.

1. I wrote about Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse over at Vulpes Libris.

2. I made a cake to celebrate the 400th Very Short Introduction book.

3. And I appeared in this Oxford Dictionaries video (see the post for answers):

Thursday 9 October 2014

Great British Bake Off: Series Five: The Final

Well, here we are! The final, and three wonderful bakers are left. It's been a vintage year for likeability, and Norm is basically already a national trejz. (Btw, remember those Mary B Janus mask images I requested be turned into a GIF? Two of you lovely people obliged - and the BBC totally nabbed the idea!) In case you haven't seen the episode yet, I shan't reveal the winner until the end...

Mel and Sue end the series with a high, being - inexplicably - in a rowing boat.

This makes me proud to be British.

We get a hasty recap of the series to date, and it seems extraordinary that it has featured on Newsnight and every newspaper cover across Britain. And then we segue across to the garden, which is now filled with children and loved ones moving about in slow motion.

These steps prove, once again, that they are not up to the job of providing climactic shots. There is a wisp of undergrowth, for old times' sake.

The tent feels extremely empty. It's been a few moments since we had a recap of the series to date, so Mel and Sue launch into another one, interspersed with the finalists saying nice, vague things about each other. The most unfortunate of these is Nancy saying "The brief this week is bold, in your face - and that is Luis."

It's ok, Luis, she said BOLD. With an 'o'.
(Simon... people in glass houses...)

The final episode means the final instalment of Blazer Watch (Bill Oddie is in talks to present this segment next year). Mary has gone full-on Cath Kidston, while the other three are recycling blazers from earlier in the series - grey, pink, and nothing, respectively.

And they're forbidden from using the same hand postures as each other.

The final signature challenge is Viennoiserie - "croissanty things" to the rest of us - and all three bakers talk about how strange it is that this is the end. They have different ways of dealing with this. Nancy goes for "pretending they're all behind me" (healthy), while Richard vows "never to do a signature again", which is bad news for his autograph-hunting fans.

Luis is making - gloriously - a pain au... white chocolate, which makes me warm to him, as my French is equally hopeless. It's a bit late in the day to be revealing those flaws that make viewers love you most, but better late than never. He keeps his food mixer going the entire time he's talking to Paul and Mary. He's keeping it cajz.

Our Nance, meanwhile, confides that she is using the mixer because she hasn't got the strength any more, "then I just finish them off to make it look like I did it all them look smooth". She wants an extra half an hour to make up for not having the males' muscles. Where are Kate and her guns when you need them?

Kate could do this in half the time of the mixer.

Paul wanders up to Nance and announces "I'M YOUR MALE JUDGE". He's cottoned onto one joke during the series, and he's not going to let it die. Not for him, the manipulation of humour into fresh and exciting new incarnations; as long as he can bellow the same two words over and over again, he'll keep bellowin'. Nancy ignores him, and says she's going to make an almond and raspberry croissant. It sounds delicious to me, but gets this Mary Berry Reaction Face:

"Almond AND raspberry? You... you maverick."

I love Nancy so much. She agrees with Paul's description of her other croissanty-thing as being a bit like a French tart in a Danish pastry (or something like that) and then raises her eyebrows as if to say "I haven't a clue what you're talking about". She's so relaxed. She is not intimidated by his steely blues. And he does seem to be getting his flirt on. It's disturbing.

Richard "speaks French a bit London". I love him too. He's making pain au lait, and Paul says it's too simple - dangerously simple. Er, I guess so?

Guess who's back?

So we meet again, proving drawer.

Luis gives an in-depth instruction for making the croissant pastry, as though anybody at home would ever bother doing that. Richard has cheated and is painting his butter on, which gets mumbles of consternation from Perch Table Corner. Apparently it could be "too bready" for Paul, who notoriously hates bread.

Dangerously spready.

Richard also says that he wants to "make sure my layers don't lose their layeriness". That, word fans, is not a new word in Oxford Dictionaries.

Luis: "It's not a good day to have a disaster." (True)
Richard: "I must admit, pain au chocolat aren't my speciality." (Good...)
Nancy: "You're trying to learn from me, aren't you?" (Paul is not a man who likes to be teased, and I love that she doesn't care at all.)

What a woman.

I've long doubted the honesty and capability of the proving drawer, and today I am proved right - as Richard has had to improvise a second drawer within it:

Prove this: you're useless

There's quite a lot of time to kill in this episode, so we get a montage of Nancy drinking water and Richard doing peculiar contortions, like he's limbering up for a limbo.

I bet he's thrilled that this got left in.

Luis puts his pastries in the oven saying "do or die". I didn't realise die was one of the options. This show just took a turn. And then he does a little body-pop, while Richard continues to create a showreel for his upcoming yoga DVD.

'Build Yourself Healthy'

In the back of the tent, Paul is practising his Blue Steel:

As the series goes on, Paul gets meaner and (presumably to offset it) Mary gets nicer - so we've got to the point where Paul complains about more or less everything, from the chalkiness of Luis' cream cheese to the edges of Richard's pain au lait, while Mary cries "You tried!", "You're a baker!", or "It's the final!" She often tells someone that she likes the flavour, if she's got nothing particularly nice to say, as though they were in any way responsible for the flavour of chocolate.

After the first critique, it's not looking good for our Richard.

Mel's intro to the Technical Challenge incorporates the long-awaited mash-up of Jane Austen and The Only Way is Essex ("on it like a Jane Austen bonnet"), and Mary announces that "it's a really nice one... good luck!" Fiendish.

It is a nice one - I like that it goes back to basics, and they're making 12 mini Victoria sandwiches, 12 mini scones, and 12 mini tarte aux citrons. All those 'minis' make me think of Bridget Jones' mum, but it's good to get them to do something that people might actually want to make at home - and after last week's terrible technical challenge, it's a good'un. But... all that in two hours. Eek.

The instructions apparently just say 'make these, innit', but the uniformity in shape and size across everyone's results, up to being judged on whether or not the tarts have 'citron' scrawled across them, rather belies this statement. As does the concentration with which Nancy is staring at her sheet. In fact... surely that's more than one sheet?

I feel betrayed.

Mary says they want "sheer perfection; that's all". Paul says they're after 'bare basics', but his accent makes it sound like 'Burr basics' - c'mon, Richard Burr, you can do it!

Nancy "I MAKE LOADS OF JAM" Birtwhistle is in her element. Yes, I know their surnames, what of it?

The only problem with this challenge, as a viewer, is that we have to sit through Mel, Sue, and the bakers earnestly telling us how to make a Vickie sponge and shortcrust pastry, which is hardly new information. Although I said that in the office today, and half of them said they didn't know how to make a sponge cake. The youth of today. (Yes, somehow I am one of the oldest in the office.)

The biggest crisis is Richard putting too many eggs in his scone mix, but it is quickly rectified. Part of me longs for people from previous series, like Rob (who'd drop absolutely everything on the floor at least twice) or John (who'd compare the whole situation to platitudes with the complexity of Dolly Parton lyrics). These guys are pretty calm about the whole thing.

Oh, but wait. It's the tarts that are causing the problems. In amongst Mary's "they should know these like the back of their hands" and Luis' "If you can't do these, you shouldn't be here", Richard has whispered a confession that he's not made them before. Neither have I, Rich, neither have I.

In other news: Richard wanders around the tent,
staring at the back of his hands in perplexed bewilderment.

Oh dear, and his jam isn't set well. "But," he adds optimistically, "it'll taste like jam!" He's banking on Mary's flavour comments, isn't he? Almost knocking over his mixer with a piping bag doesn't help especially.

How do they fare?

Luis: no glaze on his scones, Vic sponges "have an attempt at some piping work", and the tarts don't get a good reception.

Nancy: good feedback for all her bakes, but the scones are a little dry, and, in the cake, SHE HASN'T PIPED HER CREAM. "I think, when you're trying to impress, you do pipe," says Mary. It's like she's watching my every movement.

Richard: good scones, no piping in his cake like an animal, and his 'tarte au colon' (was Paul witty? What happened?) have curdled.

Richard seems out of the running now, coming third; Luis is second, and our Nance is first.

Also: her make-up is looking great this week, we agreed in my living room.

Richard is a little heartbreaking in his interview, about how he wishes he'd done better. Aw, Rich, we still love you.

What is the showstopper? Well, it seems to be the Windmill Challenge. It's actually a pièce montée, which incorporates sponge, choux, petits-fours, and sugarwork. Lawks. We haven't had many decorative/'scene' things this year, so it's nice that we get to finish with this sort of thing - although strange that all three bakers are basically obsessed with windmills, or towers in Poynton that look like windmills. The best moment, of course, is when Mel says that it "has to taste increds".

"I'm trying not to think that it's the final, and you could win at the moment" - could I, Luis? Could I? Why did nobody tell me? The pressure! The pressure!

Mary says "I think of the ones I've seen in 18th-century and 19th-century... pictures", She's making the age jokes too easy.

She doesn't look a day over 204.

Richard is making something about Mill Hill - which, I believe, is where Our Vicar's Wife is from. Is that right, Mum? Are you and Richard related? IS HE MY UNCLE?

He's putting every ingredient under the sun into this cake, and it's sounding fab. Although (spoilers) the colouring pencils man is being generous with the shade of green he uses in the picture.

Would that it had been that colour.

Look. I'm not saying that the BBC make all of their decisions based on my thoughts and opinions, but this series has been very light on History of Cake and, more damagingly to my recaps, light on Wow, They Live In Houses Just Like You! No recreational jogging; no 'Beca is married to her husband'. I'm sort of sad, but pleased that we end the series with Remembrance of Things Past - such as Richard wearing a pair of mighty fine specs:

We also learn the previously-unknown fact that Richard is a Builder (why weren't we told?) and get the sweetest ever interview with his wife Sarah, who says how proud she is of him. It is adorbs, and I shed a little tear.

And we cut to him saying "I am a ginger-lover - I did marry one!" Oh, you two.

Nancy - whilst saying "I'm just throwing it all in," in her perfectionist way - manages to fling flour all over the place with her mixer.

National trejz.

She's making the Moulin Rouge windmill, and tells Paul that he has to think of burlesque, at which he looks lost in reminiscence. Then Nancy adds that it's 'sinister', unnervingly.

Nancy once took a dog to Crufts, we learn:

And was also once Princess Diana, apparently.

We are told that her eight grandchildren support her - while being shown a picture which only has five children in it - and then a couple of said grandchildren say adorable things. Luis - you've got a lot to live up to in your VT.

Luis is making a mining wheel, which is basically a windmill, isn't it?

He's in a ukulele club. And he once had black hair!

All the bakers' families are lovely. I'm wondering what Colin would do if I were on this. "I don't watch it, to be honest," is what I'm imagining. This from the man who will be playing Paul H on the village stage come December. I'm angling for the role of Mary Berry, but have so far been repeatedly turned down for the part.

We see them make choux pastry which, again, isn't very tricky - this challenge has lots of easy elements, so it's the structure and the timing which is the hard thing. (I think - but am not sure - that Nancy pronounced 'choux' to sound like 'chew'. I do hope she did.)

The people outside continue to do everything in slow motion - whether that be rolling down hills, playing a guitar, or talking about Brighton - and some exiled bakers say who they think will win. Except Chetters, who misunderstands the question, and just says "Who will win?!" And guess who's back?

"This is all a bit fancy, if you ask me."

Nancy's husband has 'made' her something to curve her bake on. It's an old bit of drainpipe.

Can we stop briefly to admire how brilliant Luis' sugarwork is? Although... why is the word 'sugar' written backwards? Are you tricking us, BBC? Have you ordained that fancy camerawork is more important than artistic truthfulness?


Mel and Sue wander around in the background, gorging on people's offcuts, and everything looks to be going swimmingly for all the bakers. Their croquembouches are extraordinarily stable. But I do wonder if the luminous green icing Richard is using, and the vampire-red hat Nance is piping, are homemade... this strikes me as a shop-bought fondant interloper moment.

Sails are breaking, profiterole towers are snapping, and we don't even have time to stop and panic - that's how busy this episode is. All the tension musical instruments are playing at once, and it's getting very tense, not to say hysterical. And... time is up. They've all done brilliantly.

Here are the final bakes, which - as per - the bakers are staring at like melancholy, overprotective parents.

Appearance-wise, Luis has this in the bag, I reckon.

There are so many elements to these creations that Paul and Mary have to eat, and comment on, dozens of things. There's no real point in them commenting on whether or not people can make sponge cakes at this stage. And the critique is made interesting by the sound of marauding children in the far distance.

Nancy's sponge cake, according to Paul, "reminds me of a birthday cake I had as a child, actually". So... you once had a regular sponge cake? Memories, like the corners of my mind.

But, overall, there is nothing interesting to say about this section. Everybody has done well. They process out to the awaiting masses...

Although you can't see them, you know they are cheering,
each time someone brings out a cake.

Back in the tent, Mary and Paul do their usual recap of the previous five minutes, and - they are in agreement about the winner! Who could it be? Who will get the amazing prize of a glass cake stand that probably costs about £20 at John Lewis? At this stage, I felt pretty confident that I'd earned my monies from the office sweepstake.

Hordes of people - inexplicably wearing daisy chains in their hair - applaud as the finalists wander forward. Paul does his best to look manly while holding a bouquet of flowers. And the winner is...

It's only bloomin' Nance!

The best reaction is actually from Chetna, in the crowd, who flings her arms around in a delighted manner, shrieks "I knew it!", and is generally lovely.

Mary says that Nancy is a perfectionist, which is hilarious, since she's the living embodiment of "that'll do" - but that's why we love her so much. She is truly a great amateur baker.

She finishes the series with the wit, panache, and magnificence that she started it (remember how she was my fave in ep.1?), by 'confessing' that she's been in love with Paul all along. I so desperately hope that she gets a baking show. It could be called The Female Baker.

We are treated to the usual What Have They Been Up To Since The Bake Off? slideshow - the answer invariably being "exactly and precisely what they were up to before it" - except for this wonderful piece of news:

And... it's over! I got a triumphant "AAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" text from my colleague Adam, who is £10 richer after the sweepstake pay-out, and somehow we're going to have to find something else to talk about in the office.

It's been fun, guys! Thanks for reading - and I'll be back next year :) (and I'm only a little glad to get my Thursday evenings back...)

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Margaret Kennedy Reading Week

Are you joining in Margaret Kennedy Reading Week? All the info you need is here on Fleur Fisher Reads, and it's all very exciting. I'd thought I would read Red Sky at Morning, because I started it months ago, but instead I read Kennedy's final novel - The Forgotten Smile, published in 1961.

It has just been reissued by Vintage Books, along with a whole bunch of other Kennedy titles (some of them POD) and I read it for Shiny New Books - so I'm going to point you over there. (And I actually did finish it this week - on Sunday afternoon.) I'll just say that she does such interesting things with chronology, and it works - and her characters are brilliantly realised. Read on...

So... are you joining in Margaret Kennedy Reading Week?

Monday 6 October 2014

Great British Bake Off: Series Five: Semi-Finals

This post was delayed because I was preparing for Issue 3 of Shiny New Books (do go and check it out, thankyouverymuch!) But I'm here now...

The end is nigh, folks, and in case you don't know what 'semi-finals' means, the bakers are on hand to help. Get ready to be told ad nauseum that the final is next week, that there is one more week before the final, and that next week will be the week after the week before the final.

It's patisserie week, a term which is apparently broad enough to encompass anything that comes to Paul and Mary's minds. Frankly I'm surprised they didn't just ask them to knock together a chest of drawers, or give an engine a good oil check (if that is something one might do to engines): anything goes in patisserie week.

Mel and Sue have made it into the tent for this intro - revealing how flimsy the fabric of it is (and how pointless the odd bits of pastel furniture they've got lying around). Innocently, I had also presumed that this was part of the same tent but - lo - there is the main tent in the background.

Class segregation, if anything.

They're back outside for the next shot, though, with their best cod French accents. I don't think they've done an intro in their own accents since about episode two. It's the joke that just keeps giving.

We get a recap of the semifinalists' GBBO careers to date, which is apparently Luis' ingenious designs, Chetna's sensational flavours, Nancy's precision and knowledge (by which I think they mean 'she's the oldest one left'), and Richard's 'natural flair for baking', which sounds like the sort of meaningless thing somebody might write at the top of a covering letter with a job application. The little clips of the bakers reveal that Chetna is feeling confident, Richard talks about his 'graft', and Nancy would be quite happy to pop home and put her feet up. Luis restrains himself simply to acknowledging that it's the semi-final. They're all adorable.

Blazer-watch? We've got some bright colours on, which I'm enjoying. Sue's T-shirt is... odd.

Mary is giving it definite side-eye.
The first challenge: baklava. This is pronounced many, many ways in the episode, so I'm grateful that I'm writing. I love baklava (and my colleague Adam made some for the office once: impressive) so I'm intrigued to see what they'll make.

Richard says that, in London, "most shops have baklava". This has not been my experience, and would be a major inconvenience when buying clothes, books, etc.

Outside, carefully matching the flora, Paul says that the baklava has to have good pastry, syrup, and filling. "If any of those ingredients are missing, for me it's a no-go," he confides. Yes, Paul. All three ingredients are pretty essential. If someone missed out pastry (say) it would just be a pile of soggy pistachios.

"I don'ts be wanting none of that."

Mary breaks from her careful half-statement that filo pastry is "one of the most difficult pastries to make" to give an impromptu rap song 'Smack My Kitchen Up'.

(Time for my first apology of the night. My first of many.)
All the bakers agree that nobody at home bothers making filo, and Chetna puts on a fairly convincing sales pitch for Just-Roll, while Richard marvels at the fixtures and fittings, doubtless intending to nab them for his next building project.

"Lovely job."

Luis, as ever, gives us helpful and precise instructions about what he's doing. C'mon, Luis. If you want to be our favourite, you have to speak in strange witticisms or convoluted platitudes. We're not here to learn.

Paul tells Chetna that she shouldn't trust her eyes ("sometimes your eyes kid you") and she looks genuinely horrified, perhaps wondering whether or not she is actually in the tent at all. Before we have time for her to sink into a nihilistic meltdown, Mary (as is now her wont) tells her to ignore Paul. "Absolutely!" Chetna replies, with palpable relief. Then she whispers panic at the cameraman... before shrugging "oh well!" and getting on with it. The spirit of Nancy is spreading.

I can't work out if Luis describes his flower baklava as 'putting a slight slant on it' or 'putting a sly slant on it'. I desperately hope the latter. Also: colouring pencils man has apparently never seen a flower.

Send him a bunch; educate him.

"Get pulling!" says Mary.

He's a married man, Mrs Berry.

But my favourite inexplicable moment has to be over at Our Nance's baking station. Guess what she's putting in her baklava? "Well, I make muesli anyway," she shrugs, in the tone of one who might as well make a cuppa, since the kettle's already boiling. Lord knows what would have happened if she'd been halfway through assembling a casserole when the challenge was announced. She decides she might as well fling some muesli into the mix. What's the worst that could happen?


To encourage us further, she throws around the word 'inedible'. Mary and Paul wander over, and Mary conspiratorially leans in to say that she doesn't think anyone makes filo pastry. Paul bridles. Nancy wisely skates over the muesli baklava, and announces of the other "this one I'm calling coffee and chocolate". Guess what's in it? It's a Miranda's Mum Moment.

And, while we're guessing, guess which national treasures are back perched awkwardly on the table, muttering to themselves?

"And then I took up tightrope walking."

"Everyone's just got their heads down and trying to get on with it, to be honest," confides Luis. I appreciate your honesty.

And what they're getting down to is stretching pastry, which reminds me a lot of last week, when they stretched pastry.  Have I told you how much I love Richard? "I'm aiming to get this... flipping massive!" I love that bit so much. The Luises of this world will give us accurate instructions enabling us to bake at home, and do it excellently and charmingly - but it's the Richards of this world that make GBBO such a riot.

Although I hope he demonstrates more precision in building.
"How high are you building this wall?"

Sue is apparently keen to put the pastry on her face. It's difficult to know quite why.

I'm not going to show the clip where she does put some on her face
because I don't think she needs the encouragement.
Luis has spotted that Nancy is adding a bizarre ingredient into the mix, and thought 'two can play THAT game - hand me a carrot'. When rose and pistachio is the most traditional filling in the tent, you know something has gone awry.

Quick question: wut?

The first batch comes out the oven. "They're probably ok," says Nancy, in a fit of enthusiasm. It gets worse with her second batch: "I think I've messed up 'ere."

"Ovens, luvvly ovens, get your ovens here."

"My only saving grace is that they've got to be gooey anyway." Oh, The Bright Side.

Paul looms around the tent in a manner that would have his mailbox full of restraining orders in any other situation. Sue lightens the mood by openly mocking him.

The soundtrack works itself up into full Fantasia mode, and the bakers are done. ("It lacks finesse," is Nancy's damning indictment of her own craft. It certainly doesn't lack oil. The tray is awash with the stuff.)

But - she does well. "You've got what baklava is!" says Mary, damning with faint praise par excellence. Having said that, Luis doesn't do so well, because - although his flowers are beautiful - they apparently aren't baklava. Nance could give him a tip or two.

Even Frances would call these Fancy. Norm wouldn't know where to look.

Incidentally, Paul always says 'baklava' while swallowing heavily, which he obviously fondly believes to sound authentic. Mary delights by saying 'baklava' entirely differently, immediately afterwards.

Richard gets praise; Chetna gets mixed comments. Outside, she starts to do the usual reality show waffle about being happy whatever happens - but, halfway through, realises that it isn't true, and corrects herself. And it's Chetters, so of course she laughs.

"Ha ha ha - you'll have to pry me away with crowbars - ha ha ha!"

Richard, sweetly, says "I am all right at baking, aren't I?" And a horse whinnies. Sure, why not?

Onto the technical challenge. It's a Schichttorte. It seems monumentally pointless to me. Perhaps it is a big thing in Germany, I don't know, but grilling twenty layers, one after another, to achieve what is essentially a sponge cake... ain't nobody got time for that. I'd also be intrigued to know how it counts as patisserie.

Mary fakes excitement at the sample Paul unveils:

"Oh, you shouldn't have."

"What we're testing them on is concentration skills," says Paul, as though they were at dog-training class. What they certainly aren't testing is ingenuity. They are just making a sponge cake mix. And then grilling the layers one by one. It's all so dull. Poor choice of challenge, GBBO. You've let everyone down. *Shakes head* *Eats cake* *Remembers to shake head again*.

The best moment is Mel saying to Richard (at his dismally thin first layer) "Spread it out with the old spatch." I love an abbrev, me, as my colleagues are all too well aware. My heartfelt "commiz", should anyone be in strife of any sort, is well-known.

Otherwise it's just a lengthy montage of people saying "light, dark, light, dark" and mumbling about how many layers 20 is. Realising that this makes for tedious viewing, only marginally lightened by seeing people synchronise their standing up and peering into ovens, The Powers That Be have hastily re-commissioned The History of Cake.

They're made on spits. Spit-cakes. A bit like spit-takes, but cakier.

This History of Cake section is stranger than all the others put together. And - although we get a Princess who doesn't speak, a reference to Ghost, and Mel saying "chocolate" like an addict on day release, we never actually see them cut into one to count its layers.

Meanwhile, the bakers have nearly finished - and Luis is apparently 'listening to the voices in his head'. Richard fondly thinks they won't notice whether or not there are 20 layers in his cake... oh, Richard. When it comes to judging, Mezza and Pezza essentially ignore absolutely everything except those twenty layers. Whoever gets closest to the correct answer wins! Luis comes top, Chetna comes bottom, and everyone laments for their wasted lives.

"Yes, Mary, I was right - I think it's a cake."

(At my house we wonder why Mel said 'please bring your twenty layers up to the gingham' rather than "bring 'em to the gingham", which would have been both excellent and the name of a new spin-off gameshow on BBC3.)

Finally - the showstopper. And it's actually patisserie, rather than an elaborately inept way of making an everyday baked good. Entremets it is. Paul is looking for precision and beauty, apparently, and has 'seen patisserie chefs crumble, let alone the bakers in the tent'. The cameraman then gives us a sweeping shot of the tent, lest anybody be unclear what Paul is talking about.


Luis is using pomegranate and cherry - which is just as well, since the episode of sponsored by the colours purple and pink.

Nancy is also making jelly. I don't think she's ready for this jelly. And she even dares mention the word 'freezer'. There are dozens of layers to what Nancy is making, and they all sound pretty delish - but Paul is cross because it's being covered in white chocolate. You know how they love their distinct layers, Nancy. They're obsessed. But perhaps it's good for Mary and Paul to go cold turkey on distinct layers. It's for their own good.

Having got the Pink Sponsorship Deal memo, Richard is making this:

I suspect he misheard the quantity of entremets needed, and thought he had to make 200 miniature entremets. He's adding grapefruit - one of the words that Paul repeats in astonishment - and, for once, I'm with Paul. Not a fan of grapefruit. But he does say the words 'crisp layers', at which Mary practically jumps with glee. Richard - you're feeding her habit. Chetna is giving her a binge, with six-layer thingummies:

But when NORM does it, apparently four thousand ingredients are too many.

Speaking of, have you noticed how nobody is using alcohol in their entremets? Surely this would have been a prime opportunity? Or has someone had a quiet word to give Mezza a week off, so she can indulge to the max for the final?

This challenge is the exact opposite of the previous one, which tested about half a skill. In this one, everyone is doing dozens of things, and there are so many things going on that it's quite hard to keep track. All I got from the dizzying montage of piping bags, spatulas, and baking tins was Richard worrying that his sponge might be 'monkey'. What?

"Cooling time is a luxury" - Nancy unveils her plans for a dystopian future.

Lest you wonder if these patisserie delights were essentially trips to a health spa, all rapped up in dotty sponge, we then see Chetna admitting that cream has been put in everything, and Richard flinging hunks of butter into his mix. Somehow putting them in by hand like this makes it seem much more unhealthy.

I call this artwork 'Shades of Beige'.
Nancy grimaces at the idea that Luis is assembling his entremet ("nowhere near there") then cheerfully opens up a tin of condensed milk, from which the label has been thoughtfully removed, to maintain BBC non-partisanship.

I mean, it's obviously Carnation.

There are so many things going on. Let's just look at one: Luis is bathing his jelly in a hot bath. He's learnt from Voiceover Mel, and is warning that a moment too long and the jelly will turn to liquid; a single second too soon, and that jelly ain't going anywhere. It's tense.

Nancy, meanwhile, laments that chocolate is 'going everywhere' - it is, indeed, flooding her desk - but still continues merrily pouring. Correlation may not imply causation, Nance, but I think I can spot a pattern here.

Gravity is to blame, if anyone. THANKS NEWTON.

And then, recollecting that she is the baker with the predilection for instruments of capital punishment, she makes a cutthroat gesture. I think she's supposed to be suggesting that she's for the chop, but it's equally possible that a terrified Mary is cowering at the side.

Let's show entremets from everyone, shall we? They deserve it; everybody's looks astonishingly good.

"It takes a lot of guts to show all the layers," says Paul. ENOUGH WITH THE LAYERS. "I can see every layer, every flavour" says Mary. She's clearly got synaesthesia now.  She also adds that she could 'do with a little more flavour in the mousses'. She means alcohol, doesn't she? But Richard gets a well-deserved thumbs up, in general.

Nancy's critique is mixed - even her decoration of the white choc ones, which I think look amazing.

Luis gets good responses for appearance and flavour, and Paul likes the 'richness of the chocolate married to the sourness of the cherry'. Richness married with sourness? This sounds like [insert celebrity couple here]! Amirite?!

In a moment of astonishing hypocrisy, from the judges who thought a twenty-layer sponge cake without any filling was a good idea, they criticise Chetters for not having enough variety in the layers of one entremet - although they like the other.

Then this lad:

"I'm ready for my close-up."

Backstage, they do their thing of repeating everything, and pretending that it isn't (sadly) obvious who will go home. Then again, it also seemed really obvious that Luis would win this week, and that didn't happen. I love Richard, but this was Luis' week. (In other news: I've discovered that only ten people have paid into the office sweepstake, so my potential win is only £10, rather than £15.)

Winner is Richard (and look how happy everyone is!)
Mary: "you can hardly believe those builder's hands can produce such delicate results". Calm yourself, Bezza.

And, sadly, going home is lovely Chetna. She smiles to the end.

Everyone gets a bit teary at the end - even our Nance - and I'm excited about the final.

While I've got your attention - another plug for Shiny New Books. Lots of recommendations for things to read that have come out in the past three months! Sorry to be so shameless, but it's been a lot of work and I think you'll enjoy it :)

And - see you for the final! Who will win?

(P.S. Helen - I've slipped two new words in this week, to make up for forgetting last week!)