Fiction

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

by Casee Marie on July 30, 2014 · 0 comments

in Fiction, Reviews

Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s Booker-winning literary achievement, tells the story of sixteen year-old Piscine “Pi” Patel, the son of a zookeeper who, at sixteen, leaves his native India with his family and a menagerie of their zoo animals on a Japanse cargo ship. The Patels are bound for a new life in Canada, but when the ship sinks Pi finds himself the sole human survivor on a lifeboat also carrying a dazed orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, an ornery hyena, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. As the circle of life progresses even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi and the tiger are soon all that remain. What follows is a literary patchwork of magical realism, seafaring survival, and the infinite reaches of faith.

Like so many books dubbed masterworks of recent literature – or simply “modern classics” – Life of Pi is a book that draws reactions diverse in the extreme. As with any novel, some readers will regret their time spent and for others the experience will be in their blood forever. I’m of the latter persuasion; this is the sort of novel that makes me stop to celebrate the sheer magic that a good story can achieve. I certainly count Pi Patel among the most richly-imagined characters I’ve ever read; he and his story of a boy and a tiger in a boat, simple on the surface yet impossibly complex underneath (much like the Pacific itself), will be with me for a very long time.

Martel lays the foundation for the tale with the words, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” So much is encompassed in that one sentence; it seems to tell us in advance that the story we are about to read will either move us or frustrate us beyond definition – as religion often does – and that we will many times find ourselves at a crossroads of faith. Faith is itself a main character, a survivor on that lifeboat, but the shape it takes in here is one of the most beautiful and, I think, most enchanting interpretations I’ve experienced. In the early chapters of the book we learn of Pi’s unconventional spiritual leanings: towards that of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. He lays his imaginative and ever-loving heart before the reader when, at the furrowed brows of his earthbound leaders – father, priest, imam, and pujari – young Pi simply says, “I just want to love God!” He does; and as his capacity for love transcends religious confines so does it transcend the hopelessness of tragedy and the chaos of desperation. In this alone, Pi and his story would be enough, but through Pi’s narrative Martel explores faith and life and love even further, shifting from witty to philosophical, from real to surreal. Within this intricate tapestry of art is the power to impact a reader’s life, the sort of impact we readers quest for every time we open a book.

Much of the novel exists with only Pi and the tiger (whose name, with an ecstatic sense of rightness, is Richard Parker), but through their interactions, the settings of territory and the solid language of emotion, the two pack more life into several hundred pages than I would have imagined possible. Martel heaps so much love and earnest heart into Pi’s narrative voice that the reader feels locked into this powerful, uneasy friendship of man and beast. Despite the abundance of violence between creatures (some reluctantly inflicted by devout vegetarian Pi), what struck me in the end was that I’ve rarely read such emotional and breathtaking writing about animals. The tremors of a ship rat clinging to safety in fear; the quiet, noble pain of the injured zebra; the gently quizzical nature of a contented meerkat; each comes to exotic life through Martel’s prose, which is fearless in its imaginative daring.

By the end of the book the reader is given a crossroads of belief, an opportunity to take a path obscured by the bramble of imagination, or one that offers the clarity of practicality. As the unforgettable narrator wisely observes, “Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love.” So it is with getting lost in a good story.


Life of Pi was my July pick for the TBR Pile Challenge, and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve kept myself distanced from the book and it’s film adaptation (something I hope to remedy soon) so I wouldn’t have much to influence the experience. When I finished reading I went to its Goodreads page and browsed other reviews – it never fails to amaze me when I see such a wild fluctuation from two- to five-star reviews. Just further proof of the subjective nature of books!



Title: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Genre: literary fiction, magical realism
Publisher: Mariner Books (Knopf, original)
Release date: May 1, 2003 (September 2001, original)
Source: personal collection
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Cavendon Hall by Barbara Taylor Bradford

by Casee Marie on July 24, 2014 · 0 comments

in Fiction, Reviews

With her latest novel, Cavendon Hall, Barbara Taylor Bradford welcomes readers into a new series chronicling the lives and loves within an English country estate. It’s 1913 and Charles Ingham, the sixth Earl of Mowbray, finds his family unraveling in the wake of a tragic attack on his innocent teenage daughter, Lady Daphne. As he and his wife attempt to stop the spread of rumors and vigilantly guard Daphne’s broken spirit, the Inghams know that the only family they can surely put their trust in is the Swanns, a service family whose ancestors have sworn an oath to the Inghams for centuries. Life at Cavendon Hall has only begun to spiral out of control as Charles’s cousin Hugo returns, a successful and charismatic businessman who in his youth was banished from Cavendon to America under mysterious circumstances. While the threat of war looms over the lives of both the Inghams upstairs and the Swanns downstairs, secrets will be revealed, lines will be crossed, and love will be both rekindled and found anew.

With Cavendon Hall, Barbara Taylor Bradford does a commendable job of building her own unique story from the history of Edwardian manor houses and the relationships between the nobility and their servants, a time and topic that’s been sensationalized by the Downton Abbey phenomenon. When an author deals with the basic material and, essentially, the very formula of a big mainstream franchise – in this case, the upstairs-downstairs relationships and the impact of World War I on the lifestyles of both nobility and servants – it can become precarious territory, with the story being just a step or two away from feeling like a rendition rather than an independent work. Cavendon Hall holds its own, however, perhaps in part because Bradford conceived the story years before Downton ever made its premiere. The Inghams and the Swanns are all original, interesting characters and their stories keep the reader on edge with curiosity. As Downton enthusiasts will know, along with a highly active English manor come a big family and a full working staff: a complex cast, to say the least. The pages of the novel are chock-full of new faces for the reader to keep track of. I enjoyed making a project out of getting to know the characters, making family trees for the Inghams and the Swanns as I went along. One of the things that really separated Cavendon Hall‘s setting from that of Downton Abbey for me was that the Swann family was presented at a higher level than servants in the house. Given a rich history of involvement with the Inghams and Cavendon, the Swanns are afforded a special place as confidantes and even defendants of the Inghams, and as a result the interactions between the characters allow the reader to witness something more personal than the servant-master relationships that are more typically explored in these sorts of stories.

The story of the first Cavendon novel covers a lot of ground, focusing most largely on Lady Daphne –just one of the earl’s six children – as she overcomes a dark tragedy, and as we follow her life through several years across the whole of the war we also observe some of the relationships between other members of house and staff: whether the friendship between another Ingham daughter, DeLacy, and young Cecily Swann, or the special connection shared between Charles Ingham and the Swann family matriarch, Charlotte. When the Ingham family’s long lost cousin Hugo returns to the country, he brings with him the power to either save or ruin a family already on the brink. The resulting drama unfolds at an easy pace, with plenty of surprises in store. I think the one thing that would have really made Canvendon Hall shine for me was if Bradford had allowed her writing to flow more creatively throughout the narrative. With so much to juggle – character development, historical detail, and a multi-plot story – there gets to be little room for artistry in the writing. Occasionally some scenes in the novel play out with less feeling as a result, and for some readers that can invite a bit of detachment. I would love to see the series continue with more emotion woven into the prose; but where the novel may have lacked some poetic flair for me, it made up for it in the uniqueness of the characters and the intricacy of their relationships. I was constantly intrigued by everyone at Cavendon Hall, curious about what the future would reveal and how the different characters would handle their own struggles. On the whole, Cavendon Hall is an interesting start to a new series and its engaging story lays the groundwork for plenty of post-war social intrigue.



Title: Cavendon Hall
Author: Barbara Taylor Bradford
Genre: historical fiction, romance
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Release date: April 1, 2014
Source: Get Red PR (C/O)
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The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee

by Casee Marie on July 16, 2014 · 0 comments

in Fiction, Reviews

In The Glass Kitchen, Linda Francis Lee introduces her readers to the resourceful and quirky Portia Cuthcart, a Texas sweetheart with an uncanny knack for food. By an unexplainable trait handed down from her grandmother, Portia sees flashes of elaborate meals and knows she must make them – before ever knowing why. Her future seems securely attached to running her grandmother’s small town restaurant, The Glass Kitchen, but when her culinary predictions lead her first to tragedy and then to betrayal, Portia leaves a tattered life – and her will to cook – behind in Texas to join her sisters in Manhattan. Once there, Portia finds that she won’t be able to hide herself away so easily when she becomes involved in the lives of her new neighbors: precocious twelve year-old Ariel, moody teen Miranda and their widowed father Gabriel. Despite her determination, Portia realizes she can’t outrun her destiny. As she whisks up the magical comforts of her kitchen, she juggles the pursuit of her dreams with her desire to bring a broken family back together – and she may just fall in love in the process.

The Glass Kitchen is an enchanting novel about finding the courage to start over and discovering that support, friendship, and love can blossom on the path to following your dreams. Linda Francis Lee writes with humor and a great deal of her authentic Texas charm as she spins a story filled with sensual romance and the heartwarming intricacies of family drama. She divides much of the story between two central characters: jaded but determined Portia and wise-beyond-her-years Ariel. One of my favorite things about the nature of the story is the way that Portia exudes youthful whimsy while Ariel, just shy of becoming a teenager, carries all the careful intuition of a discerning adult. As the two heroines struggle – Portia against her culinary calling and Ariel under the weight of family secrets being revealed – watching their unique insights buoy each other along their respective journeys is a unique treat.

While family plays an important role in the novel, Lee approaches the dynamics from several different and engaging levels. Portia’s relationship with her sisters is illustrated with all the sass and sentiment of a true life sisterhood, and the reader feels their collective growing pains as they embark on their new journey together. Likewise, Gabriel’s struggle to raise his two daughters on his own is rendered with honesty and heart, delving into the disjointed territory of communication and the ultimate power of a father’s determined love. The message of family is strengthened further through Portia’s ethereal connection to her grandmother, as well as the innate mother-daughter link that develops between Portia and Ariel. With an essence of enchantment and bravery, The Glass Kitchen sweeps the reader up into a world where food can work magic and the measure of family is about more than blood relation. There’s a lot of fun, heart, and creativity wrapped up in the story, drawing the reader in and creating the sort of lovely escapist experience that reminds us of the magic books can create.



Title: The Glass Kitchen
Author: Linda Francis Lee
Genre: contemporary fiction, romance
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Release date: June 17, 2014
Source: Get Red PR (C/O)
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The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett

by Casee Marie on July 10, 2014 · 0 comments

in Fiction, Reviews

Set against the devastating coal mine fires of 1960s Pennsylvania, Natalie S. Harnett’s The Hollow Ground tells the story of eleven year-old Brigid Howley and her family, a long generation of coal miners, as they wrestle with secrets of the past and fight against nature to salvage the lives they’ve always known. It’s an astonishingly vivid portrait of desperation and the lingering threads of hope when even the ground beneath one’s feet can’t be trusted. Through Brigid’s clever and openly honest narrative we follow the Howleys from their home as they rejoin her father’s parents – known simply and effectively as Gram and Gramp – in the town where her father was raised; a town in which gritty secrets and ominous shadows tie together with a curse placed upon the Howley family’s Molly Maguire ancestor a century before. With precision and power, Brigid gently weaves the story of her struggle to keep her family together as passions rise, grudges give way to liberated feuds, and devastating secrets are revealed.

Harnett writes with eloquence and grit, devotedly tending to the nuances of the story in a way that makes for a remarkably strong debut. Voice becomes a very central focus of the novel’s delivery, whether it’s the narrative voice of the young and preternaturally wise Brigid, who in her pre-teen years thrills at reading the Brontës and Betty Smith, or the distinctively illustrated voices of any number of the novel’s supporting characters: her fierce-tempered and unstable Ma, well-meaning but enigmatic Daddy, and especially her cantankerous and gruffly compassionate Gram. With each character’s unique voice Harnett creates a new layer of intrigue and emotional complexity in her bold story. In a way the characters lend a special sort of detail to the novel’s deeply atmospheric quality, wrapping the reader further in the many folds of uncertainty and devastation that the people of these coal mines experienced.

The coal mine fire itself becomes its own entity in The Hollow Ground as the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning threatens the air and the fire burning in the mines below combines with the earth’s elements, creating deadly sinkholes that can swallow homes and lives in a moment. Based on the true fires of Centralia, Pennsylvania which began burning over fifty years ago and still burn today, the story touches on a tragic piece of recent US history as it explores the impact these fires had on entire towns and the people who inhabited them, people whose determination thrives as they attempt to fight a fire burning below their feet: an unseen and quite deadly adversary. Against this harrowing backdrop, the dramas of Brigid’s family members play out in poignant detail. Much as Brigid struggles with the faults of the grown-ups in her family, the reader too is torn between compassion and frustration, feeling very much what Brigid feels and being drawn even closer to her in that way.

Brigid is a terrific rendering of a young literary heroine in the vein of Harper Lee’s iconic Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve noticed that young heroines seem to have begun rising through literary fiction over the last few years, and Harnett’s innocent, genuine Brigid is a great addition to that representation. Her moxie is admirable and her emotional stability is at times particularly jarring in the wake of her parents’ poor choices, a fact that boldly illustrates her wisdom and even her superiority over the elders she so painstakingly tries to appease. Ultimately The Hollow Ground is an unflinching portrait of familial struggle and a timeless examination of the treacherous elements that can both strengthen and relentlessly violate a family’s connection. At once contemplative and energetic, Harnett’s debut is a provocative and eerie novel of suspense, intricacy, and profound feeling.


Title: The Hollow Ground

Author: Natalie S. Harnett

Genre: literary fiction, mystery

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

Release date: May 13, 2014

Source: Get Red PR (C/O)

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More on the author:
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