Tag Archives: london

Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People: Edited by Tarnya Cooper

Imagined Lives - Portraits of Unknown People - Edited by Tarnya Cooper Title: Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People
Edited by Tarnya Cooper
Publisher: National Portrait Gallery Publications
ISBN: 978-1855144552
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

A picture tells a thousand words they say. We have all learnt it as we were growing up. Yet how many of us can actually make pictures talk? Do we even care about what they have to say? The National Portrait Gallery in London receives portraits on a daily basis. Sometimes there are portraits that cannot be identified and belong to a century and time long gone.

attributed to Cornelius De Neve, oil on canvas, 1627

attributed to Cornelius De Neve, oil on canvas, 1627

So this is what the gallery did. They commissioned eight contemporary authors of Britain and Ireland to weave stories around fourteen unidentified portraits. Who are these men and women? What were their life stories? What were their thoughts? The book is about the lives of these unknown sitters from a time gone by.

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, transferred to canvas, circa 1570

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, transferred to canvas, circa 1570

The stories are deliciously written. Tracy Chevalier brings to life a painting and terms it “Rosy” about a man and his affair with another man. “I am Mary Douglas” by Minette Walters is a reflection of a time to connect emotionally with. You just want more of these stories recorded in the form of short memoirs, character sketches, diary entries and just a brief page or two about the subjects. There is also a brilliant story by Terry Pratchett on one of the portraits’ subjects meeting Queen Elizabeth. To me, that was the best piece in terms of humour.

Imagined Lives - Portraits of Unknown People - Edited by Tarnya Cooper - Image 3

Each portrait is written about and analyzed in detail – not a single element is missed out on. Alexander McCall Smith for instance does a wonderful job in “False Mary” where there is a sit in for Mary Queen of Scots herself. It is delicious and so absolutely believable that you want more from where that one came. Toward the end of the book is a brilliant explanation of how these portraits came to be by the chief curator of NPG and editor of the book Tarnya Cooper, titled “Did my hero look like that?”

“Imagined Lives” is a book about lost souls. It is about life and art merged and seen individually. I just chanced on this book and took to it. The stories and the portraits are something. Definitely something worth reading and owning.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith Title: The Cuckoo’s Calling
Author: Robert Galbraith
Series: Cormoran Strike – Book 1
Publisher: Mullholland Books
ISBN: 978-0316206853
Genre: Suspense, Detective, Crime
Pages: 464
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

With great trepidation, I picked up “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Gailbraith. There was already so much written and said about it almost two years ago, that I did not even know if I wanted to read it or not. I am glad that I picked it up. Please do not even compare it to the Harry Potter series. You just cannot. May be that is why J.K. Rowling had to change her identity and write this series and once the identity was out, well then the critics had their field day- both good and bad.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is the first in the Cormoran Strike (the name of the detective) series and while the third one is just out, there are more lined up. I don’t know how many though. All I can tell you is that the book is something else for sure and I cannot wait to read the second and the third installments.

What is the first book about?

Of course, at the heart of the book is the Private Detective Cormoran Strike – the ex-army guy with his own complicated personal life and skeletons in the closet, his business which is drying up, and of course he had to have a messy break-up with his fiancée.
So everything is downhill till Robin a temp arrives from the Temp Agency and ends up becoming a permanent secretary/assistant of sorts and then a case lands up on his doorstep which he just cannot refuse. It is a high-profile case – that of a supermodel – falling to death from her third-floor Mayfair apartment and her brother suspects foul play and hires Cormoran to investigate further. This in short is the gist. It is like any other hard-boiled detective novel you might say. So what makes it any different?

I guess it is the writing for sure but it is also the noir element that runs through the book, given it is set in London and also given how the characters are all people with shades of grey as it should be in a book like this. I instantly took a shine to Cormoran and the wry humour that prevailed throughout. The working class of London is also very well depicted, without leaning to any social or political context. The lives of people – both the detectives and the suspects are so detailed that it is a joy to read the book and know more about them.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is the kind of book that cannot be read in one sitting. It needs to be cherished and savoured and not read in one go. At least I wasn’t able to. Cormoran Strike is a detective that will grow on you as he did on me and I cannot wait to read The Silkworm.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling (English)

Her by Harriet Lane

Her by Harriet Lane Title: Her
Author: Harriet Lane
Publisher: W & N
ISBN: 978-1780220024
Genre: Suspense, Thriller
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I had heard a lot about this book on various online forums and sites. I was quite excited as well to read it. I finally read and finished it today. The book is very well-written, that’s for sure, and it’s just that I was a bit disappointed by the twist in the tale. Having said that, I give it four stars only because of the writing and the atmosphere Harriet Lane has managed to conjure in her book “Her”.

“Her” is a story of two women – Nina and Emma. Both are almost of the same age and living in London. They come from two different worlds and lead two very different lives. While Nina is a successful artist, Emma is a housewife who feels mostly stifled being at home and taking care of her children. And yet when they meet, there is something that draws them to each other, something almost unexplainable. Till the reader understands that Nina is up to something while meeting Emma (well sort of understand, rather, the reader can only guess). Why is Nina interested in Emma? Why does she have this obsession which is so subtle and yet there?

The book is chilling. It is also quite an intriguing read. Lane’s writing is sharp and has a lot of detailing that only helps build the suspense. I loved how Emma’s housewife ennui is explained throughout and how Nina’s perspectives are portrayed. Both women’s stories unravel through their views of similar situations, told in alternating chapters.

My only grouse was the build-up to the end in the penultimate chapter. I just had a problem with that part. The ending however is so brilliant that it will leave you with your jaw dropping. This thriller is interwoven with the past and the present and explores human psychology with great casualty. It is quite shocking to see Nina’s character build and do the things that she does with such calm.

You must read this book for the plot, for the characterization, for the way the women are depicted, for the details and above all for a good chill running through your spine.

Just So Happens by Fumio Obata

Just So Happens by Fumio Obata Title: Just So Happens
Author: Fumio Obata
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 9780224096638
Genre: Graphic Novel
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Home is where the heart is. Home is also sometimes the place that you want to go back to the most and just cannot. There are times you long for it and there are times you cannot stand to be in that place. Relationships perhaps are the crux to home. They can either make or break what is home for the person. To a very large extent, it also depends on the past and that is exactly what Fumio Obata’s graphic novel, “Just So Happens” is about – the meaning of home and its importance.

I live away from home. I am from Bombay and I live in Bangalore. It is in the same country no doubt and yet home seems a million miles away. It is almost suffocating at times, not to be at home – the feeling of alienation and then I also try very hard to fit in. Homesickness, longing for home and trying very hard to not choke when you see others around you enjoying their home city.

“Just So Happens” is the story of Yumiko, a young Japanese designer living in London and making it on her own. The past seems a distant memory. Till her brother calls her one fine day, to inform her that their father has died in a mountaineering accident. Life changes in a flash. Yumiko has to return to Japan for a while and has to make choices, she never thought she would.

I am obviously not giving away a lot of the plot because I would like you, as a reader to experience it for yourself. The illustrations are beautiful (they better be, given it is a graphic novel) with vivid brushstrokes – also how the artist separates the two cities and also the hues which are well brought out in the graphics.

I could relate to the book at so many levels and yet at some points I thought the story was a drag, till it picked itself up and then there was no looking back. “Just So Happens” is a heart-warming and yet at times very introspective graphic novel of belonging, identity and to pick up the pieces of life and build it all over again.

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Book Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Title: NW
Author: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241144145
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I have always enjoyed reading Zadie Smith’s books. They are complex and yet charming. At the same time, they leave you with lingering thoughts about the societies we live in and the nature of humans. I remember not enjoying, “White Teeth” the first time I read it. However, when I did read it the second time, I was captivated by her style of writing. The same happened with, “The Autograph Man”. I loved, “On Beauty” and her collection of essays, “Changing My Mind”. Now to her latest offering: NW.

“NW” – refers to North West London. The story revolves around its residents. The book is about their loves, sorrows, hypocrisies, ambitions, facades, prejudices and fears. The novel is about the four central characters on different rungs of the moralistic and social ladder. Each character is a world of their own in the book and that is what makes this book special and intriguing. This is perhaps Smith’s shortest book and yet with so many layers to it – almost like a Russian Doll, that never ceases to amaze you.

Leah Hanwell is married to an African named Michel. She has a troubled marriage and shares a love/hate relationship with her husband. There is then her friend Natalie (formerly known as Keisha), who is trying to grapple with her present and stick on to the past in the form of Leah. Nathan, Leah’s childhood friend is the third major character who is a weed-smoking, almost jobless wastrel. He feels that Leah and he are now worlds apart and cannot connect anymore. Felix Cooper is the fourth major character of the book who craves for a better life than the one he is leading right now. Their lives converge and that takes the book forward.

What appealed to me the most about the book besides the plot was the writing and the way the characters were sketched. The characters are real. They are not sentimental or emotional. They are human and display emotions in an understated manner. The writing is unconventional and fragmented and maybe it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it definitely worked for me.

“NW” has been written by Smith after seven long years. The story when looked at it from that perspective almost seems fresh and that I attribute only to her writing, which is razor-sharp, taut and amusing at most times.

“NW” is all about people trying to make sense of their lives, when directionless and sometimes lost on hope. There is a lot going on in the book and at the same time, Zadie Smith allows you to take it all in and rest a little with your thoughts and emotions. It was a cracker of a read for me this year and I will definitely re-read it sometime later.

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