2nd December

Persuasion is Jane Austen’s most mature novel. It has always been my favourite of her books and the older I’ve become, the more I’ve appreciated it. Anne Eliot is a much more complex character than Austen’s other heroines. In the course of the novel we see her develop from a somewhat self-deprecating, confined woman to a happy and self-confident one. Whilst Captain Wentworth is the catalyst for this, he is not responsible for the change – that comes from Anne herself. She has learnt from her own mistakes as well as from other people’s and is a stronger person for it. I’ve always hoped that Captain Wentworth realises that he is not getting the bride he would have had seven years earlier…

In The Star of Kazan, Eva Ibbotson fashioned a jewel! With a deft touch she created memorable characters: Annika, a girl in love with life and Austria; Ellie and Sigrid, servants defined by duty and generosity; the eccentric professors for whom they work; the glacial Edeltraut von Tannenberg. And Vienna. The warmth and fondness with which the author describes Vienna make me feel as though I’ve been there – although I never have. It is a wonderful evocation full of waltzes, Sauerkraut, the not-so-blue Danube, the Prater, Lipizzaner stallions and affectionate laughter at the city’s idiosyncrasies. Vienna is integral to the novel. It is more than a setting in time and place. It is a main character. The Star of Kazan is a delight. Eva Ibbotson’s gentle irony and subtle humour enhance a beautifully crafted and well-managed plot. There is no extraneous detail; like an expertly conducted symphony, everything comes together in a satisfying Viennese conclusion.

The Blog’s Name

I expect that some of you recognise the allusion in the title of my blog.  It’s to Lewis Carroll, of course, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

       ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’

I’ve always liked this quote and I do agree with Alice.  I think she’s right both literally and metaphorically.

Judging for the Kate Greenaway Medal opened a whole new world of books for me.  Up until then I hadn’t paid all that much attention to picture books.  I’d bought them for the library and occasionally for the children of friends but I hadn’t really studied them.  Some of my fellow judges were real experts on the subject and I learnt so much from them about how illustration (not just in picture books but in any book) enhances the reading experience.  I love the way the words and pictures in a book can tell different stories as in Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner by John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell.  And I am enchanted by the 1920s’ style used by Shirley Hughes in Ella’s Big Chance.

My enjoyment of a novel is definitely affected by the dialogue.  I don’t necessarily like a novel because it has lots of conversations but I do struggle if there are few.  I think that the reader learns so much about characters from the conversations they have and is more easily drawn into their world.  The opening lines of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women is a classic case in point.

But the ‘pictures and conversations’ thing is true too metaphorically.  Good books paint pictures in the mind.  As a child, I was steeped in the Chalet School books of Elinor Brent-Dyer, especially those set in Austria.  I was in my late twenties before I ever went to the Achensee, the real-life setting of the early books in the series, but I had a remarkably accurate idea of what the lake and its surrounding villages looked like.  Equally, I have never visited Vienna but, having read The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson, I feel as though I have!  I can see, too, Anne Shirley cracking her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head in the Avonlea school (and I could before ever I saw either the BBC’s excellent adaptation of LM Montgomery’s book or Kevin Sullivan’s equally brilliant offering).

And a book with any lasting impact will always engage me in a debate – often with myself but sometimes with others!  It might be about the plot or characters or it could cause me to ponder the themes and issues raised.  One such book was The Garbage King by Elizabeth Laird which had a huge impact on me when I first read it.  Set in modern Ethiopia, it contrasts (but, oh, so subtly) the lives of two boys from opposite ends of the social scale.  It stayed in my head for ages afterwards.  I’ve even been known to debate books with their authors.  As a teenager, I wrote to Joan Lingard (and received a reply) to remonstrate with her about the way she ended her Maggie quartet.  And whenever I see Linda Newbery I try, with no real hope of success, to persuade her to write a sequel to the excellent Sisterland  because I so much want to know what happens to all the characters.

So, yes, for me there is no use of a book without pictures and conversations.