Great British Bake Off: Series 7: Episode 1

Guys… it’s back! And it’s CAKE WEEK. I can’t promise my recaps will be well-timed, but they will be presented beautifully. And that’s the nearest you’re going to get to a pun from me (he lies).

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Things kick off, as usual, with Mel and Sue hamming it up and generally pinching themselves that they get to waffle nonsense on camera for a living. That beats flogging Warburtons, doesn’t it, ladies? Said nonsense includes (unless I am being prurient) a coded reference to sex toys… Yep, guys, they’re back with a vengeance and it’s like the Carry On films never left us.

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Ooo caktron. Caketron. No, wait, I can do better.

We start to be introduced to the bakers, accompanied by sweeping aerial views of an unidentified stately home, and various contestants stand in isolated woodland and tell us that it’s exciting to be there. ‘There’ being, presumably, the competition – rather than the woodland. Though Val looks like she’d be thrilled to be anywhere – and is mostly excited that the tent is real. Here speaks a woman who has never fully trusted television.

Also, I would argue, a nat tresjz in the making.
Also, I would argue, a nat tresjz in the making.

Lots of early impressions are flying around. I had – but of course – already scoured the line-up and descriptions, and have Kate in the office sweepstake. But my first thoughts are that everyone seems pretty fab – even (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) the P.E. teacher. I didn’t know it was in me to like a P.E. teacher.

This isn't an unfortunate shot; she had her eyes closed throughout the entirety of her first clip.
This isn’t an unfortunate shot; she had her eyes closed throughout the entirety of her first clip.

Shall we gloss over Mel’s list of ‘Kates’? I feel like it’s a pun we’ve had before, and it wasn’t welcome then. What IS welcome (I can only assume) is Blazer Watch. As the summer gets warmer, will we see these disappear?

Of course not.
Of course not.

The first challenge is a goody. It’s drizzle cake. And Mel adds to the stores of my undying love by saying “no presjz” for “no pressure”. If GBBO has done anything, it’s made abbrevs socially acceptable. Right? It has, right?

…Right?

The bakers start by urgently moving things around their counters in a way that looks entirely like over-enthusiastic extras pretending to be busy in the backdrop of a soap opera. Somebody (who?) just mutters “Scissors, scissors”.

I like that they’re making a drizzle cakes, because that’s something that somebody might conceivably want to do. As Paul acknowledges, the challenges have got a bit eccentric over the years – remember that dry-as-the-desert pancake-sponge-cake they had to make one year? – so Well Done Bake Off Team.

Bakers tut and sigh and show us whether or not their hands are shaking – presumably prompted by the production team, since I can’t imagine anybody would volunteer the numbingly dull information that their hands weren’t shaking – and we’re flung into activity. All is not quite well in the world of hands, though; Jane is our first blue bandage of the night.

Or she's covering up a Smeg logo tattoo.
Or she’s covering up a Smeg logo tattoo.

Mary is, of course, banging on about lemons – but she is ‘expecting the unexpected’. And I can only hope that she is talking about Val and her genial insanity. She struggles with opening a jar, and seems to believe that Paul and Mary have come over with no other purpose in mind but helping her get the lid off.

I love Val: she uses margarine in cakes rather than butter (as do I), she’s from Somerset, and apparently does kitchen aerobics in her slippers while somebody stoops to take creep shots from the doorway.

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One downside to a good, simple recipe is that there aren’t huge surprises. People are grating oranges and lemons, creaming butter and sugar; the usual. Until we get to Louise, whose chief and best quality is being Welsh. Love to hear a Welsh voice on TV.

Mama didn’t raise no fool with this one, as my friend Adam would say – she knows the way to Mary’s heart and that is through soaking everything indiscriminately in booze. Orange liqueur it is. And… lemonade? Let me tell you, I put lemonade in a cake once – aged about eight – and the unpleasant taste is still in my mouth.

My favourite bits of GBBO might be the at-home segments, where people tell us that they are married to their husbands or work in their workplaces. As the selfsame Adam pointed out (or was it you, Rachel?), they ain’t writing the Dictionary of National Biography. Having been told that Louise is a hair stylist, we get video proof for the avoidance of doubt. Which is just her murmuring ‘roots’ at this unsuspecting lady.

Discretion, Louise, is the better part of valour.
Discretion, Louise, is the better part of valour.

Paul H has found his first nitpicking to do: drizzle or icing? The gameshow writes itself. It then also rejects itself, screws itself up into a ball, and throws itself into a recycling bin. As Louise astutely notes, Paul does know what he’s talking about, because he’s a professional. He is no longer eligible to bake in the Olympics.

Lee’s butter is too clumpy, and I marvel afresh at the number of people who apparently cream their butter in a food mixer. I was brought up to use me ‘ANDS. ‘ARD GRAFT. &c. &c. Lee is a builder-turned-church-minister (the repeated use of ‘church minister’ rather than ‘vicar’ – and the fact that he is dressed super casjz while giving his split-second talk – leads me to assume that he’s non-conformist. HE CERTAINLY IS WITH BAKING AMIRITE.)

I like that this is the vista of Bolton that we get.
I like that this is the vista of Bolton that we get.

Mel assures Lee that he’ll be all right – which, hmm – and (as if realising her mistake) quickly waffles about consistency and the need for it to taste like cake, and “the perfect ratio of wet to dry ingredients”, which sounds rather as though you were trying to describe a shopping list to a synaesthesiac. Then we zoom in on this rather dramatically.

I had forgotten Michael existed til recapping. Sorry Mikey.
I had forgotten Michael existed til recapping. Sorry Mikey.

We’ve seen Louise and Lee at work, but nobody is interested in seeing a financy something or other at their desk. Luckily Selasi rides a motorbike and, in his spare time, pretends to be a superhero.

Admittedly, in this photo he looks like he was taking off his coat, got caught, and is trying to style it out.
Admittedly, in this photo he looks like he was taking off his coat, got caught in the sleeves, and is trying to style it out.

Selasi is the chillest contestant ever to be in the tent. He’s entirely unflappable, and the show knows it. Several times in this episode we have little montages of bakers shrieking or announcing hysterically that they’ve never been more nervous in their lives, before seguing to Selasi murmuring that he’d be quite happy to take a quick nap any time. He also has a tea towel around his neck, or over his shoulder, at all times. Why? Nobody knows, least of all Selasi.

Colouring Pencils Man! He’s back, he’s not changed, and he is nothing if not hazy in where he believes cinnamon might be on this drizzle cake.

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Kate is putting apples in her cake – which doesn’t win her points with me, I’m afraid, as I’m no especial fan of the cooked apple. Particularly in a cake. In a crumble, and we’ll talk. She apparently picks them from her orchard – or, indeed, gets her two children to do it gratis. They’ve also picked the blackberries. Said children appear, complete with unexpected flapper haircuts, flinging flour at each other instead of rolling out the curiously tiny lumps of pastry in front of them.

"Oh, children!" Kate laughs, before the camera is turned off and she sets them to Aga-based child labour afresh.
“Oh, children!” Kate laughs, before the camera is turned off and she sets them to Aga-based child labour afresh.

Candice is making a gluten-free cake (oh lord, why) but is rather adorable when describing how she’s going to poke in the custard, giggling away while she earns our first Mary Berry Reaction Face of the series. Which looked lovely in passing, but is a trifle terrifying in still.

So, so sorry.
So, so sorry.

Dear Mel and Sue – could we go through one episode without you telling us that putting food in the oven at the wrong temperature is wrong? It sort of goes without saying, right? The only catastrophe is Jane forgetting to add ground almonds, so she busies herself with starting again. Forgetting is catching, as Selasi has omitted the cinammon – suddenly the vagaries of Colouring Pencil Man’s artwork are explained – but he is less panicked. Instead he wanders over to Candice (who is doing washing up, which I’d always rather assumed was done by the production minions) and… well, I don’t remember precisely what he said, because I was too busy concocting a tent romance between these two.

And a little distracted by the fact that he's needlessly holding a jug of water.
And a little distracted by the fact that he’s needlessly holding a jug of water.

I’m going to have to get pacier on this recap, particularly with so many bakers in the tent, but we can’t ignore the baker who is putting gin in his drizzle. Because:

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This is Tom’s handiwork (I realise now that I had amalgamated Tom and Michael in my head) – he’s also using boiled-down tonic to make some sort of… well, I’m not sure what, because presumably boiled-down tonic is just sugar?

Yes, Val listens to her cakes. There was rather a hullabaloo about this, but I’m sure other bakers in previous series have also given their cakes a good listen? I’m not gonna lie; based on how she does this week, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as best practice.

Louise steadfastly refuses to join in Sue’s attempts to innuendo her cake out of existence.

Rav is using yuzu, and seems astonished that Sue hadn’t heard of it. Since this is a lady who, seven series in, tends to need the rudimentaries of self-raising flour explained to her, it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. His description of it as being “a cross between a lemon and lime” does beg the question whether he wouldn’t have been better off with… a lemon and a lime.

Now, Andrew seemed perfectly likeable. I was prepared to cheer him on. But then this happened:

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I realise that it looks like he’s snorting something, but he is (in fact) chopping up rosemary. He believes that infusing his drizzle with rosemary will ‘give it a bit of a twist’. Well, I’ll give you a twist in a minute, Andrew, because NO. Every year somebody starts doing this, and I think I summed it up best on Twitter:

With roast potatoes – yes please; I’ll be offended if you don’t. In anything sweet? Absolutely not.

If you’re after close-ups of pastry brushes and dripping icing and (of course) drizzle, then you’ve come to the right place. Val manages to dislodge her edible primroses – an accident which can only be considered a blessing in disguise and a massive hint from Dame Gravity – but she obviously isn’t bothered, and decides ‘we’ll get away with it’. We being her and the cake which has been confiding in her, presumably.

"No" - the cake.
“No” – the cake.

“You’re the first,” says Mary to Benjamina, who nervously says “Yes”, and it feels like some archaic version of YouTube comment threads. Benjamina is also involved in an elaborate discussion of whether a section of cake is undercooked or drizzle-soaked. Spoilers: it’s fine.

Nobody does disastrously, though Kate’s “that’s disappointing” in response to unenthusiastic feedback is a little heartbreaking – and also an excellent idea for a serial killer’s catchphrase. If anybody writes this screenplay, I am more than willing to appear in the credits as an executive producer. Other highlights from this section? Tom/Michael’s gin is apparently powerful but tasteless, Paul comments of Candice’s cake “Fascinating that it’s gluten-free” (is it?), and Paul criticises Rav’s cake for not being quite lime or lemon enough. Which, considering it had neither lime nor lemon in it, is unsurprising. Most importantly: lingering looks between Selasi and Candice.

Lingering.
Lingering.

And… we’re onto the technical challenge! Mary’s only piece of advice is “It’s suggested that you do things in an order – keep to that order”. This nugget may not be helpful in and of itself, but at least she delivered it in the middle of a rap battle.

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12 JAFFA CAKES. Do people have jaffa cakes outside of the UK? I’m going to be honest, I thought it was trademarked. They’re a fairly dry sponge, fairly unappetising orange jelly, and fairly uninspiring chocolate. Somehow, together, they are a Great British institution. They’re also about 65p for a pack of 12, so making them by hand is something nobody would dream of doing for a moment.

Paul helpfully points at the different bits of it and names them – “Chocolate on the top” – concluding with “that’s a jaffa cake right there”, suggesting that he mistakenly believes he has wandered into the world’s easiest version of Kim’s game. Oh, and a crisis was caused across the nation when this debacle happened:

Mary's face says it all.
Mary’s face says it all.

“We don’t do that in the South, you know,” says Mary, and she is right. I’m anti-dunking in general, and certainly wouldn’t make an exception for jaffa cakes. What I love about our ridiculous nation is that the maker of Jaffa Cakes, McVities, actually released a statement on the matter.

Everyone starts with the orange jelly, and it’s nowhere clear for a moment how they’ve done it. We see them poke an orange or two, and then suddenly we have trays of orange jelly littering the tent. My question: did they use gelatin or pectin? Are these vegetarian? Why do we have to spend so long having the concept of stirring explained to us by a bevy of bakers, when this essential question is left unanswered?

People are spooning their sponge mixture into trays, and Val says she is going to try to “guess the time”, while prodding the timer enthusiastically and seemingly at random.

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And then we segue, of course, into bakers staring into ovens. Oh, the eternal love between baker and oven. It makes the looks between Selasi and Candice seem almost not lingering. (But, to clarify, they definitely are lingering.)

My favourite moment of the first ep might be this one – Candice acknowledges that she has illicitly added orange juice to the recipe, against the instructions, and Mel sotto voce asks her where she got the orange juice from. “The orange,” says Candice, in the voice usually reserved for encouraging the first words of a recalcitrant infant.

I adore how pally they are.
I adore how pally they are.

Various bakers umm and ahh over the size of the jelly in a jaffa cake (fair enough), and then, less explicably, they debate which way up they should go. I mean, wut? Have these people never encountered a jaffa cake before? “Who knows what’s the right way round?” poses Jane, answering her own question with these monstrosities:

Lord have mercy on us all.
Lord have mercy on us all.

(Having said that, I can definitely see myself entering the tent and immediately forgetting every single thing about every item I have ever beheld.)

In the end, only Andrew is doing them the wrong way round. He whispers his every thought at the camera, and – for no obvious reason – does a quick impersonation of Lurch.

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Oh, and we got our first glimpse of the pheasant that got, I feel sure, more screentime than a good half of the bakers. And then, with some quick chocolate spreading and piping and the minister saying (I think) “I don’t know what a cross looks like”, we’re done. And they all look pretty amateurish, I have to say – the chocolate let a lot of people down.

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Highlight, of course, is Paul’s “They are all uniform… ly bad”. It reminds me of Simon Cowell’s endless “You have successfully… not… got through… to going home… because you’re through” style banter. Once we get to Andrew’s upside down jaffas, Paul explains that they are upside down – and then which the right way might be, for the avoidance of doubt.

This looks badly photoshopped, somehow.
This looks badly photoshopped, somehow.

We meander through all the contestants, and there isn’t a huge amount to say. Andrew comes last (Paul reiterates that they were upside down, lest anybody has forgotten), and Lee and Val also do badly. Obviously aiming to confuse me, Tom and Michael (or Michael and Tom) claim third and second place, while good old Selasi comes top.

There are so many bakers that we obviously don’t have time to discover the unexpected history of cake – we get, instead, another shot of a pheasant – and (after a quick debrief from Judge Corner) we’re into the showstopper. And it’s Mirror Cake! No, I hadn’t heard of it either.

What is a Mirror Cake? Mary just uses the word ‘polish’ and ‘glaze’ over and over – and follows the theme of the episode by never quite telling us how one goes about making a glaze on a cake. I thought it was just a very good ganache, but it seems to be separate from that. I suppose we’ll never know (unless, of course, we are willing to google it – which we are not). What I do know is that it must have given Colouring Pencils Man a bit of a headache – but he demonstrates glaze admirably.

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Next stop, Louise. Hers sounds delicious – being based on a white chocolate trifle – but she has more or less ignored the challenge, and is just shoving buttercream on the outside. “And mirror glaze” adds Sue optimistically in her voiceover, though we remain none the wiser as to what that could mean.

Sue also gives her annual explanation of what a genoise sponge cake is (“added air… and keeping it there”). Meanwhile, Val has developed a crippling addiction to the timer. I have a sneaking suspicion that she believes it is counting the remaining moments of her mortality.

"Why is it in minus numbers?"
“Why is it in minus numbers?”

Selasi is whisking over boiling water (“I don’t understand it… I just bake it”) and has forgotten to include raspberry seeds. Seeds? That sounds gritty. Andrew, meanwhile, is making something with salted caramel and orange which looks and sounds delicious – even if Ultimate Indulgence makes it sound rather like the last meal of a convict on death row.

I don't know why those inverted commas are menacing, I just know that they are.
I don’t know why those inverted commas are menacing, I just know that they are.

Michael is using Matcha Tea sponge, which looks revolting, but… no, it probably also is revolting. Mary seems pretty unimpressed.

"It's like a dry grass."
“It’s like a dry grass.”

So, here’s a question. Why is there a bunch of roses on one of the desk? Has Selasi been wooing Candice? Is Val going to sugarglaze them? Answer comes there none.

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Speaking of our Candice, she is having trouble with her genoise sponges – which aren’t rising. It’s an issue, I’ll acknowledge, but nothing compared to the name of her cake. If Andrew broke my ‘no-rosemary-in-cake’ rule, Candice is playing fast and loose with my dictats on naming cakes. I.e. be simple and straightforward. Don’t call it ‘Chocolate Paradise’ or ‘Midsummer Dreams’ and definitely don’t call it…

I'm holding you complicit, Colouring Pencils Man.
I’m holding you complicit, Colouring Pencils Man.

But she gets her comeuppance almost immediately; she flings a sponge against the wall, and starts again. She’s not the only one. Val, Benjamina, and Tom/Michael (possibly Tom AND Michael?) are also starting from scratch. While Louise says she’s making a creme pat, but appears to be mashing raspberries. Er, good luck with that. (It perhaps explains the ‘disaster’ with it that she later mentions.)

Oh.

Oh, Kate.

I hadn’t spotted this name the first time around.

Oh.
Oh.

It’s an oddly pessimistic name for a cake, thinking about it, but it’s definitely on brand: Kate is wearing a swallow dress, has swallow earrings, and I believe – though I may not have been listening as attentively as I could have been – once married a swallow.

Val gets a visitation from Paul and Mary – not in a spectral way – but busies herself with tasting the contents of the unnamed jars around her, ignoring them as much as possible. She narrowly avoids adding cornflour – which does pose the riddle: why are these jars unlabelled? Is it to reenact some sort of Portia situation?

Incidentally, this still life was created by Luigi Lucioni.

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“I’ve literally done everything twice,” says Benjamina, much like Mum did when she had twins. Lee has made a horror of a ganache, Candice is waiting for a jelly to set, and everybody opens and shuts freezers, trying to find an empty one. It’s clearly Portia week. Benjamina, meanwhile, has a little cry because her cream or ganache or something is too runny. She seems to think that continually mixing it will make it less runny?

Bless her. And bless Sue, who comes to look after her.
Bless her. And bless Sue, who comes to look after her.

We see lots of sugar thermometers. Guys, since last year I have actually been given a sugar thermometer! It’s very exciting. I can make things to exactly the right temperature – and have indeed used it for Extreme Baking. Maybe I’ll mirror glaze EVERYTHING this week.

Aaand, with one excellent use of ‘Mother Hubbard’ as an expletive from Candice, we’re done! There are some truly excellent-looking bakes out there. Here are some other photos of the ones I loved the look of:

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Matcha tea, we learn, is unpleasant in a sponge cake. Poor Candice is a bit upset about the state of her genoise (but has served her cake on a huge ornamnetal mirror), while Andrew surprises the judges with his excellent cake. And as for Kate’s luminous blue swallow cake? “Blue isn’t usually a good colour for icing,” Mary notes kindly, having evidently not tasted my (third-place) award-winning swimming pool cake of 1995.

Special mention has to go to Louise, who seemed to disregard the challenge entirely – but let’s not be hasty. Perhaps she misunderstood, and thought she had to do a cake that seemed like a mirror – in the sense that her cake has the exact colours of her hair, face, and lips.

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All of which, thankfully, are great colours for cakes and faces alike.

We barely have time for another couple clips of the pheasant, before we’re into the announcements. Star Baker is…

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Jane – to her surprise and, I’ll admit, to mine (but only cos I thought Selasi had it in the bag). Leaving us, sadly, is…

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Bye Lee – you seemed a delight, and I’m sorry that we haven’t seen more of you. In fact, this group of bakers might be the nicest bunch we’ve had yet – as of yet, I’m rather fond of all of them.

Next week looks like it’ll be stressful. Biscuit towers, Viennese whirls, and collapsing trays. Can’t wait!

It’s been fun to be back – hope you’ve enjoyed the recap. And thanks to everyone who asked about it coming back :)

One more time:

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Tea or Books? #24: careful or manhandle, and The Love-Child vs Lolly Willowes


 
Tea or Books logoI have forced two topics on Rachel – firstly, are you careful with books, or do you manhandle them? (It will all make sense in context.) And then two books that were lynch pins of my doctoral thesis – The Love-Child by Edith Olivier and Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Prepare yourself for hearing lots about my research, partly because it’s the first time since my viva that anybody has sat down and listened to me talk about it.

(Btw Great British Bake Off recap coming SOON, promise, but it takes longer than putting this episode up and I didn’t have time tonight!)

It feels like ages since we recorded, so it’s really nice to be back. We’ve missed it! Do let us know what you’d pick in each category, and any topics you’d like us to cover in future episodes. Listen above, via a podcast app, or at our iTunes page. One day we’ll have enough ratings and reviews for them to show up on the page.

Here are the books and authors we talk about in this episode…

The Victorians by A.N. Wilson
Winnie and Wolf by A.N. Wilson
Angus Wilson
Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
E.T.A. Hoffmann
Why I Read: The Series Pleasure of Reading by Wendy Lesser
The Shelf by Phyllis Rose
The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
Henry James
Susan and Joanna by Elizabeth Cambridge
Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
Mapp and Lucia series by E.F. Benson
Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
Present Laughter by Noel Coward
The Love-Child by Edith Olivier
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Henrik Ibsen
Winifred Holtby
The Witch-Cult of Western Europe by Margaret Murray
Sarah Waters
Lady Into Fox by David Garnett
Mr Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
William Maxwell
Dwarf’s Blood by Edith Olivier
The Seraphim Room by Edith Olivier
The Venetian Glass Nephew by Elinor Wylie
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
The Brontes Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
A Harp in Lowndes Square by Rachel Ferguson
The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay
His Monkey Wife by John Collier
To The North by Elizabeth Bowen
The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Malvern books

Malvern is one of my favourite places, and Saturday was spent very happily on a day trip there. The reason for the trip was seeing Noel Coward’s Present Laughter at the theatre (which was excellent; very funny, good lines, beautiful set, and a winning turn from Sam West – makes me wish that more Coward plays were put on, as there is much more to him that Blithe SpiritPrivate Lives, and Hay Fever, fab though those are) – but while we were there: books.

Malvern books aug 2016On my last trip, I was sad to discover that the Malvern Bookshop would be closing down if they weren’t able to find a buyer. Well, praise be, they found one! It would be such a shame to lose a gem like that. So half of these came from that bookshops (where I also picked up some cheap piano music), and half from the excellent Amnesty Bookshop. The friend I went with spent happy time with a box of old theatre programmes in the Malvern Bookshop, and came away with some beauties. Anyway – here are the books!

Young Adolf by Beryl Bainbridge
I have a few unread Beryls on my shelf, but don’t remember coming across this one in the wild before – so wanted to nab it. Who other than Beryl would attempt this novel? I can only assume she brings all her trademark quirks to the table.

The Clocks by Agatha Christie
I need to work out precisely which Christies I have and haven’t read, because it feels like they’re dwindling – but this is definitely one of them.

Misreadings by Umberto Eco
Apparently a book of parodies? I have ‘parody’ on my Book Bingo card, so this may well come in handy.

Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley
Human Being by Christopher Morley
Two novels by Christopher Morley, author of Parnassus on Wheels – I keep buying books by him, and have only read three, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave these behind.

The Lighting of the Lamps by Susan Hill
I though I’d had quite a coup here, but it is actually available from 10p on Amazon – I just hadn’t heard of this book before. It’s a collection of Hill’s writing about literature – prefaces from books, and articles, I think. Something fun to dip into.

The Faces of Justice by Sybille Bedford
Another book I hadn’t heard of by a writer I like! This one sounds fascinating – Bedford travels around various countries looking at their justice systems, and how the same crime will be treated differently in many different places. I’m a little worried that it might be xenophobic, but her wine-soaked travel writing Pleasures and Landscapes wasn’t (as far as I can recall) so fingers crossed.

Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh
I’ve yet to read any of her detective fiction, but I can’t resist a murder mystery set in a theatre.

Fell by Jenn Ashworth

FellIt’s time to start pointing you over to my Shiny New Books reviews! (And, while you’re there, do take some time exploring all the reviews and features on offer.) This one is the latest novel by Jenn Ashworth, whom I met at a bloggers-meet-authors event a few years ago, where we had a lovely chat and bonded over being the only non-Londoners there. Fell is a really wonderful, unusual, and sensitive novel. Read all my thoughts over at SNB; here’s the beginning of my review:

The title of Jenn Ashworth’s fourth novel could mean any number of things – or, indeed, all of them. The first two that come to mind, as you start reading the novel, are the felling of a tree (the fate of two sycamores is in discussion) and falling to earth – because our narrators, we learn fairly quickly, are dead. Not in a Lovely Bones talking-from-Heaven style, but in an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-anxious away.

Quick bits and pieces

Hi all! Hope you’re having a good week. I just wanted to share three things with you quickly…

1.) I was on Eggheads! If you can watch BBC iPlayer, you can catch up with the episode. It was great fun, though nerve-wracking to watch, even though I knew the result…

2.) Speaking of TV – the Great British Bake Off is back soon, the contestants have been unveiled (I’ve got Kate in the sweepstake), and I will be doing recaps here – albeit perhaps delayed by a day or so.

3.) A fiendish odd-one-out book quiz I made for OxfordWords. Let me know how you do!

 

Daisy’s Aunt by E.F. Benson

I have so many E.F. Benson books on my shelves – they’re not tricky to pick up in secondhand bookshops, if you’re patient – but almost all of them are unread. Besides the excellent Mapp and Lucia series, which I’ve read twice (though not for years), I’ve only read Secret Lives. And I thought it was about time that I remedied that. I’m so glad I did – Daisy’s Aunt (1910) is faintly ridiculous, but entirely enjoyable.

Daisy's Aunt

The opening scene, and opening paragraph, is classic Edwardian insouciance of the variety that Benson does charmingly:

Daisy Hanbury poked here parasol between the bars of the cage, with the amiable intention of scratching the tiger’s back. The tiger could not be expected to know this all by himself, and so he savagely bit the end of it off, with diabolical snarlings. Daisy turned to her cousin with a glow of sympathetic pleasure.

If you are not instantly charmed by both author and character, then I don’t know if I can help you. The scene has no other purpose – she almost instantly leaves the zoo, with her subservient friend Gladys in tow, and the incident is scarcely mentioned again. But it has set Daisy up as reckless, amusing, and rather lovable – which is just as well, as we have to take it as read that she is charming for much of the subsequent novel.

The novel, indeed, has all the benefits of the typical Edwardian novel, as well as its drawbacks (if such they be). It is frothy and indulgently charming (that word again) – and the plot makes almost no sense. But I’ll do my best. Look away if you want no spoilers at all, but these are the main facts which lead to the bulk of the plot:

  • Daisy’s young aunt Jeannie (after whom the US title for this novel, The Fascinating Mrs Halton, is named) is returning from a year abroad, and finds that Daisy is hoping a Lord Lindfield will propose.
  • Jeannie knows that Lord L was (ahem) a cad with Daisy’s sister in Paris – but had made a deathbed promise to the sister never to disclose this.
  • Oh yes, the sister (Diana) is dead, but most people thought she’d died five years before this.
  • The only solution Jeannie can see is to flirt with Lord Lindfield until Daisy sees that he is no better than he ought to be, and foreswears him.
  • There’s another gent who loves Daisy, and one who’s secretly engaged to Jeannie.

Phew! There we have it. Obviously Jeannie’s plan is ridiculous, even given the mores of the day, and there is any number of better plans, but she apparently can think of none of them – and does all this from love of Daisy. Jeannie Halton is, indeed, a kind and lovable woman, otherwise sensible and (yes) charming. Little does she know that Daisy has gone from thinking she might as well marry Lord L as anyone, to actually loving him…

Tangled webs, and all that. We see most things from the perspective of either Jeannie or Daisy, and the events of the novel chiefly take place during a house party in a beautiful riverside cottage – lots of the idle rich staying for a few days together, and gossiping about each other. One of my favourite sections of the novel, actually, was the indulgently long time Benson spends describing this idyllic house – from informal, winding garden to the welcoming rooms. And particularly this bit:

At the other end, and facing it, the corresponding kitchen range of the second range had also been cleared out, but the chimney above it had been boarded in, and a broad, low settee ran around the three sides of it. Above this settee, and planted into the wall, so that the head of those uprising should not come in contact with the shelves, was a bookcase full of delectable volumes, all fit to be taken down at random, and opened at random, all books that were familiar friends to any who had friends among that entrancing family. Tennyson was there, and all Thackeray; Omar Khayyam was there, and Alice in Wonderland; Don Quixote rubbed covers with John Inglesant, and Dickens found a neighbour in Stevenson.

My version of this library would be updated by a couple of decades (I have to confess to never having heard of John Inglesant), but doesn’t it sound wonderful?

And so the novel goes – never sensational, and always at least a little witty, but with genuine stakes for those involved. But the reader has no real anxiety. We know that such a novel, from such an author, can’t end but happily. It reminded me rather of Herbert Jenkins’ delightful Patricia Brent, Spinster; it is the same sort of delicious silliness that passes a sunny day beautifully. I’m glad that I’ve finally looked in more depth at my Benson shelf – and must make sure to return to it before too long.

 

Shiny New Books: Issue 11

I’ve just realised I didn’t tell you about Shiny New Books Issue 11 coming out! It went live just before I set off to Kent for the day, last Thursday. I’ll fill you in about all that later, but for now – there are about 60 new reviews and articles for you to read at Shiny New Books. Go ahead and dive in!

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It really is a joy to see each issue come together – I play the least significant role on our team with the wonderful Annabel, Harriet, and Victoria; between us (but mostly them) we come up with a selection of the best titles of the past couple of months. As resources go, that ain’t bad.

Tea or Books? #23: keep or cull, and They Came Like Swallows vs Time Will Darken It


 
Tea or Books logoTwo William Maxwell novels go up against each other in this episode – but not before we’ve got to the heart of the emotional issue of whether to keep books or cull books. (Obviously we don’t want to cull ALL our books – we’re not certifiable – but you know what we mean.) It gets unexpectedly heated. YOU ARE WARNED.

Listen above, via the podcast app of your choice, or visit our iTunes page. Take a picnic; make a day of it.

Pop over and say hi to Rachel, and don’t forget to follow her on Twitter. It’s quite the journey. OH and here’s the article by Teresa, which we talk about in the first half.

We didn’t end up talking that much about specific books and authors this time – but here is what we did mention:

Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell
They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (read Rachel’s full review)
The Ballroom by Anna Hope
To The Bright Edge of the Road by Eowyn Ivey
Love Notes to Freddie by Eva Rice (not quite what I said…)
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Foe by J.M. Coetzee
Robinson Crusoe by Jonathan Swift
Stoner by John Williams
Brensham Village by John Moore
Elmbury by John Moore
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
The Takeover by Muriel Spark
Margaret Atwood
The Love-Child by Edith Olivier
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
Virginia Woolf
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Elizabeth Taylor
The Chateau by William Maxwell
The Element of Lavishness by William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner
William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations ed. by Charles Baxter
Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Spinster of This Parish by W.G. Maxwell
The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

4 (pretty good) books I don’t have much to say about

You know there are sometimes some books that are good, but you can’t think of much to say about them? Well, these four have all been in a pile waiting to be reviewed… but I don’t have a whole review in me. Now that I’ve set sufficiently low expectations…

where-theres-love-theres-hateWhere There’s Love, There’s Hate (1946) by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo
Where did I hear of this book? Maybe Kaggsy? Maybe in Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder? Well, I don’t remember – but this is now the third book I’ve read by Adolfo Bioy Casares (and the first by his wife Silvina Ocampo). They were the hallucinogenic The Invention of Morel and the confusing Asleep in the Sun.

Well, this short novel – with the long title that sounds like a rejected name for a country album – is a murder mystery of sorts. It’s supposed to be a spoof or a send-up or something, but tbh I didn’t really see how it was. Is it a genre that can’t be satirised, because all detectives and all motives and all approaches seem possible? (Having said this, I did enjoy Dr. Humberto Huberman’s insistent belief that he’d cracked the riddle every single time he came up with a new theory.) Perhaps Where There’s Love, There’s Hate will mean more to somebody with more of an expertise than I in Latin American literature…

At Wit's EndAt Wit’s End (1965) by Erma Bombeck
I have a feeling that this one was a gift from my friend Clare, from my Amazon wishlist, but how did it end up there… You can see that I’m not very good at remembering how I come across books, though I’m always interested to hear how bloggers discover and choose their reads. I suspect this one came when I was on the lookout for books in the mould of the Provincial Lady diaries and Shirley Jackson’s fictionalised domestic autobiography.

This one was fun, but didn’t stray far from the typical. The usual hopeless husband, hapless narrator, and helpless children – tales of domestic disorder and marital disharmony; that sort of thing. I read most of it on the plane up to Glasgow in January, and it passed the time very amusingly, if perhaps not in the same league as Delafield and Jackson. But I did love lines like this: ‘I was going into my eleventh month of pregnancy (the doctor and I disagreed on this point) […]’.

Dandelion WineDandelion Wine (1957) by Ray Bradbury
My friend Barbara recommended this one years and years ago, and I bought it back in 2009. I had intentions to use it in my DPhil thesis, but – clearly – didn’t read it at the time. Fast forward seven years, and I read it – yes – on the train on the way to Edinburgh. It’s the penultimate of the books I read in Edinburgh, guys! (I do feel like I’ve been writing about them for years.)

You might not be able to make out the description on the cover. It says ‘the haunting novel of a summer of terror and wonder’. Well, there is not a single moment in this novel that is haunting; there is not an ounce of terror. Nor is there intended to be. It’s such a weird tagline for a novel that is actually just the sunny, whimsical musings of a boy and his brother enjoying a summer of… well, a little wonder, I guess. It’s all quite hazy and dreamy and a bit overwritten, but enjoyable. It has some very devoted fans, I think. I may not be quite one of them, but I did like it.

Dolphin CottageDolphin Cottage (1962) by G.B. Stern
I’ve only read Stern’s books about Jane Austen, so I was excited to have a review copy of Dolphin Cottage, one of Stern’s later novels. So late that a middlebrow domestic novelist ends up talking about TV appearances, which feels a little out of the expected – like the Internet suddenly cropping up in a Richmal Crompton novel or something.

I enjoyed reading this one, but I don’t think I have ever read a novel that felt so very much of its type. Even though the plot was a little curious, the rest was mid-century novel by numbers. Matriarch, daughter seeking freedom, local woman whose ways are not the old ways… I think I might try one of Stern’s older novels next time.

 

Recent arrivals (free and otherwise)

Today has been a nice, lazy day so far. Sat in the sun with a book, got my hair cut, made some rock buns. There’s a very real chance that I may be Mrs Miniver without realising. BUT I also popped into some charity shops – donating a pile of books, and buying some (though, it should be noted in the interests of floor space, not the same number that I donated). I also bought in other charity shops earlier in the week.

But this week also saw the magic happen. Free books, y’all. FREE.

In one of the nicest streets in Oxford, St. John’s Street (on my way to work), somebody had set out a bookshelf with a note saying ‘free books’ – and the lady in the house kept coming out and replenishing the stock when it was getting depleted. Maybe she was moving; maybe she was sorting out the possessions of a recently-passed relative? Whatever the case, she was a blessing to the book-loving community of Oxford.

July 2016 books

Daphne du Maurier: a daughter’s memoir by Flavia Leng
I have accidentally topped and tailed this pile with Daphne du Maurier biographies. This was a charity shop purchase – I have somehow never quite worked out how many children Daphne had, so I’d never heard of Flavia. But I love these sorts of intimate perspectives, alongside the more detached writings of professional biographers.

An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
Somehow I have never bought Christe’s autobiography before – despite having had it on my mental tbr pile for the best part of 20 years. This edition comes with a CD that apparently has Christie’s dictation of some of the autobiography on it.

My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
The first of my 3 charity purchases today. I keep buying books by Ackerley without yet having read any (though did recently read a book by his mystery half-sister, as you do). This one will also double up as a box crossed on my Book Bingo card – book with a flower in the title.

Several Perceptions by Angela Carter
I’ve still only read one novel by Carter, Wise Children, but I’ve been amassing them for years. This one looks pretty bizarre even for Carter – having looked through the blurb – so I might ease my way in via some of the others on my shelves.

What Hetty Did by J.L. Carr
Or James Carr, as this edition has curiously named him. The three books I’ve read by Carr have been extremely different, and two of them have been very good (A Month in the Country – which seems to be the only one that anybody reads now – and A Day in the Country, which is equally good in a very different way). So I wonder what this one will be like?

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
This one, and the rest, were from the free shelves. I enjoyed Miss Lonelyhearts when Daunt Books reprinted it. This one is apparently all about 1930s Hollywood, and has a ludicrously ugly cover. I suspect it could be fun.

This England
This is a collection of short notes from a column in some British newspaper. The Spectator, maybe? It’ll get shelved on my dip-in-for-fun-sometime shelf.

Later Days by W.H. Davies
I’ve not actually read his more famous volume of autobiography, The Autobiography of a Supertramp, but the sequel seemed more up my street – entirely based on the fact that it takes place in the interwar years.

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Murray
I was stoked to find this one – because I had to read it in the Bodleian when I wanted to use it in my DPhil. Sylvia Townsend Warner referred to it when she gave interviews about Lolly Willowes, and it makes for an interesting comparison with that novel. And it’s nice to be able to shelve it alongside my own thesis books.

Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster
From D du M to D du M – in fact, my friend and colleague Adam picked this one up for me when he brought me the good tidings of the free books. I remember when this came out, I think, and everybody was all “Oh, Daphne was NOT a nice lady.” But I’ve learned that myself, through her letters to Oriel Malet, so I’m ready for whatever Forster can throw at me in here. Come at me.