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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it in gulps
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...
Published on 5 Sep 2011 by Saleel N

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings
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...
Published on 29 Sep 2011 by Frances Stott


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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it in gulps, 5 Sep 2011
This review is from: The Picture Book (Paperback)
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving Pictures, 4 Sep 2011
This review is from: The Picture Book (Paperback)
What a book. Jo Baker's previous novel, "The Telling", is high in my all-time favourites, so I was eager to read this new one and I was not disappointed.

The epigraph quotation from Ecclesiastes: "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. All the rivers run on to the sea, and yet the sea is not full" flows through this story of a father, his son, his grandson and his great-grand-daughter (William, Billy, Will and Billie respectively - don't panic, it's not as confusing as you'd expect!)

In an arc from 1914 to 2005 and beyond, the chronological order appears deceptively simple. But threads are subtly woven back, forth, and crosswise, and we frequently grasp the truth of people and events in an intriguingly non-linear way. The four main characters and those they live amongst (to call them lesser characters would be a misnomer as they too are drawn with deftness and compassion) are seen at depth, through their own inner thoughts, and through short scenes, often achingly beautifully observed, of their lives. Jo Baker's vision is unsentimental, affectionate and humane. There is no idealisation: we catch the darkness and light within each character. The sense of menace around one character, the aptly-named Sully, is all the more acute for being understated. Introducing three of the main protagonists from their childhoods, gives extra clout to our involvement with them - the author "does" children in a way which tugs at the gut without ever lapsing into over-kill. A particularly painful family pattern is played out one day when Billy (the married son) and his young family go on a sea-side trip - it had me wincing. The prose itself never falters, often soars, and is a source of delight - especially in an almost poetic ability to give a whole picture in one sentence: "little Billie Hastings, with her belly like a boiled egg and her narrow little shoulders".

We don't so much move through the twentieth century, more it moves through each of these people - both the wars and the peace. And it really does move. Quite how the author manages to so richly distil a character, a life, a world-changing event, without risk of floundering in a bog of unnecessary information, I'm not sure - but she does.

As we move through each generation, our vantage points shifts and we see characters we once inhabited, but now from the outside, and with the gift of hindsight - like pictures. This creates an almost cinematic feeling of both the space and the connectedness between human beings, and also of the unstoppable movement of time.

Throughout "The Picture Book" Jo Baker is the all-seeing narrator in the truest sense: she knows the whole story in the fibres of her being and gives us, elegantly and movingly, what we need to piece it together for ourselves. These characters and this story, for being so intensely personal, speak to us of our own family histories, and our place in the bigger picture.

And the final paragraph is one to die for.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quietly Compelling, 16 Oct 2011
By 
Sally Zigmond (Yorkshire, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Picture Book (Paperback)
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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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings, 29 Sep 2011
By 
Frances Stott (Devizes, Wiltshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Picture Book (Paperback)
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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
3.0 out of 5 stars re-issued under a new name, 28 July 2012
This review is from: The Undertow (Hardcover)
I have just read the synopsis for this book and it appears that it's now been re-published under the title The Picture Book
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A story about generations from WW1 to the present day, 31 Oct 2011
By 
Andy_atGC (London UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Picture Book (Paperback)
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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
5.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Big Family Story, 2 April 2012
By 
Kate Hopkins (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Picture Book (Paperback)
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
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 2 Jan 2012
By 
Angel House "Poet" (South Oxfordshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Picture Book (Paperback)
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On receiving this book, I had high expectations. There is a quote from Glenn Patterson on the front cover 'A wonderful novel: quite simply a life changer.' On the back cover, another comment from Margaret Forster says 'What Baker is so good at is evoking atmosphere, so that you're right there with the characters. The novel is full of really gripping descriptions, with such sensitive detail embedded in them. Very satisfying.' High praise indeed.

So I expected to be captivated and to have my life changed. Instead, I found a story that I did not feel was anchored in reality, under-developed characters and over-written descriptions.

Sorry this book did not do it for me - even though the plot idea and the play on the names (William, Billy, Will and Billie) is brilliant.

A story involving 20th Century English history involving parents and children ought to be right up my street. Maybe I have just become too fussy.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An epic story of one British family through four generations, 23 Nov 2011
By 
L. H. Healy "Books are life, beauty and truth." (Cambridgeshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Picture Book (Paperback)
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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
4.0 out of 5 stars A family between the wars, 16 Nov 2011
By 
elkiedee "elkiedee" (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Picture Book (Paperback)
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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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The Picture Book
The Picture Book by Jo Baker (Paperback - 5 April 2012)
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