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3.9 out of 5 stars
The Picture Book
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 5 September 2011
Jo baker's novel, The Picture Book, is a wonderful and touching tale of the Twentieth Century through four generations of one family. It is also a keen look at incremental advances in social position and mobility over the course of a hundred years.
That's what it's about - beautifully written; but also, it's an affectionate account of various characters from an author who looks closely at them and feels along with them. Some moving moments are presented with assured understatement. Amelia, who has previously made us bristle by her quiet anti-Semitic thoughts, is transformed into an object of utter sadness when she realises she is no longer the centre of her son's life. Later, her middle-aged crush on her boss is left dangling, and we're invited back through the series of events to realise that she was widowed young and has foregone love and physical affection, and will continue to do so. Moments like this have a touching poignance because they're set alongside the William-Billy-Will-Billie stories and we can see threads of emotion that might elsewhere, with another writer, be ignored.
Baker as narrator shows lovely bits of sympathy and understanding - particularly for small boys: young Billy's fear for his new toy car (of course he'd take it to school; and realise, then, that it might be taken off him; and why would he not have realised that? Because small boys don't think that far ahead); Will's protective affection for his little sister. The narrator changes voice ever so slightly along with changing protagonists, so that we know Baker is still narrating, but point of view is always with the character: `Oh Lord' is Amelia's appropriately quaint and sweetly expressed reaction to her waters breaking, and `Oh goodness' (Okay - Amelia seems to stand out for me).
Some other things: the style and descriptive ability evoke not just feeling but place and time with great precision. And there's humour and farce. I read the Observer review of the novel and it seemed to concentrate on what it termed the Boys Own aspects of the novel: Gallipoli, D-Day, the Oxford don... it seemed to miss the point. Anthony Powell wrote a wonderful panegyric to the minutiae of the Twentieth Century in his Dance to the Music of Time. At the risk of sounding opaque, what makes Baker's novel wonderful is that with characters like Cosimo, Amelia and Madeline she kind of steps between the beats.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 16 October 2011
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I so enjoyed this novel. For one thing, I could relate closely to the Hastings family and the social progress throughout the twentieth century, even though the locations and family experienced were different in the detail. Both my grandfathers fought in World War One and my father saw action in the second. I was also the first in my family to go to university. Everything, the history, and daily life chimed in with mine. I understood the atmosphere in the second war of 'that this might all end in a moment' because of the stories my mum used to tell me; I experienced the snobbish gulf between jazz and pop in the early sixties and 'grew up' with the Beatles. I also experienced that inadequacy at university when I compared myself with my self-confident upper-class, privately educated fellow students.

But what I enjoyed the most about this novel were those subtle shifting connections between the generations, the development from something that was intensely of the moment to it becoming a piece of the past or something never spoken about. Each person knows something that no-one else ever knows.

Sully's character has been criticised by some reviewers here because he 'fizzles out.' But that's the point, surely? He begins as a threat that could wreck a marriage or even change the whole family dynamic had Amelia married him. But it is Billy who sees him for what he is and sees him off which is probably what sends an already sad individual off the rails. His mental state deteriorates; he becomes obsessed with the Hastings; he tries to attack Ruby but by the time he molests Will, he is pathetic old tramp. Will doesn't even notice his ears. In fact, the bitten ear lobe is a physical symbol of that shift of power, memory and meaning down the generations. By the time Billie finds it, it has lost its menace and is merely an object she finds fascinating. A historic artefact with an unknown story.

The changing dynamics of the succeeding generation of one family is beautifully done. Jo Baker's writing is exactly like the way Billie uses a pencil. In a few deft strokes, she can create a deeply satisfying picture. The love that binds the generations together is tangible but it is never sentimental.

This is one of those novels that gets under your skin and remains with you long after you've finished reading it. The only criticism I have is the cover quote. To say it's 'a life-changer' is so ridiculously hyperbolic, it had the opposite effect with me. I almost refused to open the book when I spotted that. It is indeed life-enhancing but life-changing? No. But recommended, none the less.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I started off loving this book; a big book telling a big story, following one family through two world wars and beyond. The main characters are all named after each other; William, his son Billy, Billy's son Will, and finally Will's daughter Billie. This is the common thread, and gives the book its structure.

But while the novel began with energy and a really good story, I felt that as we travelled through the twentieth century and towards the millenium, it began to lose momentum. For me, the best part was undoubtedly that set during the wars, with William fighting in Gallipoli and Billy in the D Day Landings. But by the time we reached Will's story, I was beginning to flag, and towards the end I really had had enough. I found the characters at the start of the novel more interesting and their stories more absorbing than those that came afterwards, and while the writing is always good - in some places, brilliant - it wasn't enough to carry this reader through. This is a shame, because I started the book with high hopes, and for much of the novel, these hopes were more than fulfilled. But I think that in the end, the novel is simply too long.

One other niggle concerns the sinister character Sully, companion of William during WW1, who stalks family members for many years afterwards and causes at least one very unpleasant incident. Eventually, Sully simply fades out, and I felt that I had been led to expect his reappearance; some kind of denouement for his part in the story. This never came.

This is a novel I would still recommend for the quality of the writing as well as the first two thirds (or so)of the narrative, but my recomendation does come with the above caveats. Three-and-a-half stars.

A word of warning: the blurb on the back of my copy did include spoilers, so don't look at the back until you've read the book!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Jo Baker is an author whom I had never previously encountered. Although not the sort of story that I would normally read, I have spells where I resume an interest in 19th-20th Century history, the two World Wars, and in Social History. The book includes interwoven stories involving several mostly related generations and others within a period of almost a full century. The title is an interesting choice and gives little indication of the subject(s) included.

Part domestic, part social history, partly the stories of two World Wars, their respective aftermaths and the effects upon individuals actively involved and otherwise, it is a complex mixture of the lives led by the many participants in the story. The story is not continuous and the various segments can be separated by several years. Despite this discontinuity, the book is quite easy to read.

Quite lengthy, at 450 pages or so, it may be a book you would prefer to read over several days rather than in a single protracted session, were that possible or practicable. It appears to be well constructed and very well researched and deserves to be read by anyone with any interest in the various genres of literature previously mentioned or those with an interest in how the related events may well have affected their own families. I don't think that will become a best seller, but it deserves a degree of success, if only for the amount of research which I presume to have been conducted and for the overall result achieved.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This book sets out to capture an entire century of history through the story of one family. It is emotionally centred on family life and the events that distinguish each member. It is skilfully begun, starting with the life of a young sailor and his new wife in 1914. I so much enjoyed Jo Baker’s book Longbourne and was looking forward to reading this book. But something went out of kilter with this one. I felt as if, in every movement of the plot, I knew what was going to happen. Maybe I’ve read too many books about wartime recently? It has everything one could expect, but when you read a book that merely meets your expectations, you aren’t reading anything exceptional.

I don’t quite know what was missing for me. I enjoyed the first few chapters very much, but then it began jumping five years hence and I somehow lost track of who these people were and why I was interested in them. It became staccato. In parts it was warm and emotionally satisfying, but then we were suddenly five years on and it was as if we had to realign ourselves to characters suddenly subtly different without knowing why. It touched very well on certain aspects, such as the fragmentation of wartime, but that came to seem a deliberate ploy so that Ms Baker could get us onto someone else in the story. I liked her prose a lot, and there were some brilliant touches here and there, but that’s all they were, touches. I didn’t feel I learned enough about their lives to settle down to a seamless read. I would still read Jo Baker, however, because of my absolute pleasure with Longbourne.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
A wonderful, far-reaching and exquisitely written story following a London family over four generations. William Hastings, a manual worker, marries young and is conscripted into the Navy during World War I. After a brief experience of life abroad in Malta, he is killed at Gallipoli. His widow Amelia bravely raises her only child, Billy, alone in poverty in a small Battersea house - Billy in due course becomes a worker for a bicycle manufacturer and a considerable cyclist himself. But he misses being picked for the Olympic team, and this and World War II put an end to his cycling career. Like William, Billy leaves to fight in a war (World War II in his case) having recently married. His harrowing experiences of war will change him for life and he returns an in some ways broken man, content with a small house in Mitcham and a job as a school caretaker and handyman. His son Will is conceived on one of his leaves, his daughter Janet after World War II. Will is born with a physical handicap to one hip - this grows worse the older he gets, and he has to spend some considerable time in hospital, where he develops a passion for books which in due course, once he's out of hospital and determined to live as normal a life as possible, gets him good marks at school and an Oxford scholarship. At Oxford he meets a beautiful and kind girl called Madeline and, after an uncertain beginning, does very well, eventually launching into a career as an Oxford English don and a parallel career as a womanizer. Will and Madeline's daughter Billie grows up against a background of tension in her parents' marriage, and bonds strongly with her grandparents Billy and Ruby. As she grows up, she becomes increasingly drawn to art, and the final section of the novel describes her struggles to develop a career as an artist and to find out more about her family's past, against a background of family and romantic tensions and dramas. The novel ends beautifully, with a true air of hope (nice to have some optimism these days!).

I loved this book, and felt that Baker's historical research was particularly impressive. All the characters, and their environments, came beautifully to life. Like Carol Birch in 'Turn Again Home' she deftly pictured the family's evolving circumstances, but went one further than Birch in showing in detail the family progression from working class suburbia to academia and work in the arts, and how this affected the relationship between the generations. The material on the two world wars was well written, with no hint of melodrama, and the later sections about Oxford and London beautiful, particularly Will's experiences trying to adapt to Oxford college life as a student, and Billy's determination to become an artist. The dialogue was believable and Baker never let herself become sentimental - this was a moving book but one that could also be quite grittily tough at times. I still had a few questions to ask at the end of the book: the sections on William and Billy were very slightly slow getting started, for example, and I might have preferred a bit less on them and a little more explanation of why Will became such a womanizer, and how this affected his wife and daughter. But these are tiny criticisms of a very impressive achievement - realistic fiction at its best. Buy it and you won't be disappointed.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Picture Book is a grand, ambitious novel. Over 90 years, it follows the lives of four generations of the Hastings family in the form of William, a World War 1 hero; Billy, a World War 2 veteran; Will, the Oxford academic; and Billie, the budding artist. The main characters are joined by partners, families and friends. All in, the novel has a large cast of characters but they are never overwhelming.

Jo Baker seems to have taken transience of life as a central theme. As we follow so many characters over so many years we witness many departures. We see repetition; we see secrets of one generation partly uncovered by future generations. We see quite a lot of toil, pain, tears along with a fair dose of love. But as future generations come, memories of former generations fade. The later characters will sometimes do things of great poignancy - Billie visiting Malta, for example; Will giving money to a tramp - without realising the significance. Poignancy reduced to coincidence. And as memories fade, the earlier characters disappear completely - almost as though they had never been at all. In a heartbreaking scene at the end, we are reminded that William was never photographed - his face is lost forever. But then we realise that William's parents don't even exist in the narrative: just one further generation back and even we, the omniscient readers, do not know the story.

The writing is sublime. Jo Baker has a knack for picking just the right word - in a turn of phrase, she can conjure a whole scene, convey value judgements, transfer emotion. When Madeline is introduced to Will's parents, for example, the dizzying Axminster conveys so much more than just the carpet. The imagery brings with it the gulf of social class; conveys Will's trepidation of Madeline's reaction; puts across the whole uneasiness of the situation. Throughout the novel, Jo Baker never puts a foot wrong in her writing and this allows a longish book (450 pages in my copy) to feel concise. The richness of the material would usually struggle to fit in a book of twice the length.

Cutting down so many lives and so many years into a short space of time means careful selection of key moments and allowing the reader to fill in the gaps in between. For the most part, the events take place in years ending in 5 and the events that are recorded are done full justice. Whilst there are leaps that need to be made, it works; within a few pages of a new era, the reader feels fully engaged in the timeline; the here and now is what matters. Perhaps, to an extent, the adult Will is less successful than the other storylines but not enough to unbalance the book.

The front cover carries a quote from Glenn Patterson that says the novel is life changing. That might be overstating it, but Patterson is an interesting choice of commentator given his own superb novel about the transience of life - Number 5. He's right to recognize the enormous talent in his compatriot.

The Picture Book works as a story and also works on many deeper levels. It's rare for such an ambitious novel to be brought off so well.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This novel is epic in scope, telling the story of four generations within one British family. Starting with William Hastings in 1914, through his cyclist son Billy before, during and after WWII, then his academic son Will, and finally his artist daughter Billie. It's an ambitious and clever way of combining so many stories about the same family, covering a lot of ground in terms of time, taking as it does events of a whole century, from WWI to the present day, as the backdrop. The setting moves around, taking in for example the time served by William in Gallipoli during WWI and Billy in France during WWII. The lives of those closest to them are brought into the story and nicely illustrate what is happening at home whilst they are away fighting. There are some beautifully observed individual scenes and moments within the story. The novel moves ahead in time and location at the start of each new chapter, sometimes by only minutes, sometimes by several years. Whilst enabling an enormous period of time to be covered throughout the novel as a whole, and allowing the reader to follow this family through four generations, this fast-forwarding technique does mean that it can feel a little disjointed to the reader. Unfortunately I struggled to really connect with the main characters, and I did not feel drawn into their stories enough to care deeply about what was happening. The use of the present tense in novels hasn't always really bothered me in the past, as I know it has some readers, but I think in this book I did notice it and it didn't work well for me. Judging by other reviews, I'm sure many other readers will enjoy this more than me; I just struggled with this one.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 9 November 2011
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I loved this book right from the start and its attraction remained all the way though. However I fail to see how it can be described as "life changing". I note other reviewers commenting on the "gaps" in the story of four generations of a family however the novel is called "the picture book" and pictures are frozen glimpses of life and that is what this book offers. Starting with a death in the first world war we move through the last century looking at the generations of the family is frozen glimpses. While I guess I would have liked to know more at times I found the approach worked for me. It is actually the way life is for many of us - we know small fragments of our family history and probably often lack some insights into why things were the way they were.

I found myself fully engaged with the characters that populated this book - the highs and lows of their lives were well worked. A good book - maybe 4.5 stars I guess - I will remember it for some time which is more than I can say for some books.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 16 November 2011
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Picture Book holds pictures with clues to a family's past - postcards sent home by a sailor, and photographs taken over the years. This is a family saga set in London between the First World War and 7 July 2005, specifically that day when the reality of international conflict was brought home to our capital in such a terrible and terrifying way.

I found the first part of the book, about William, the First World War and Gallipoli, a bit shadowy, but it got more interesting with the stories of his widow and son in the 1920s and up to the Second World War. Jo Baker is good at using historical detail to evoke the period, and explores the thoughts and feelings, imaginatively and convincingly engaging with how people might have felt. There are some rather clunky sentences dropped in, statements about the eternal events of death and life and love.

Still, I enjoyed reading this, Jo Baker's 4th novel, and will be looking out for the first 3.
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