The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of HattieThe Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
Published by Knopf
Unsolicited review copy provided by the publisher

From the publisher:

In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented.  Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave.  She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage and the journey of a nation. 

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is more a series of linked short stories than a novel, and while I don’t experience books like this too often, I almost always enjoy them when I do. This book was no different – I enjoyed it tremendously and the format of linked short stories was a fantastic way to tell the story of Hattie’s life through her children.

Even though the book is ostensibly about Hattie’s children, it turns out that their stories just serve as a vehicle for the reader to get to know this family overall, and to get to know Hattie better and more clearly as each story goes on. The book begins with Hattie losing her firstborn twins, at a time when she is very young, poor, and married to a man she hardly knows. This loss absolutely rocked Hattie to her core, and although she had nine more children, the loss of those twins was something she felt deep in her soul every minute of every day for her entire life.

Hattie broke my heart because after the loss of her twins, she wasn’t able to love the rest of her kids in the same way. It was almost like she wanted to show them that love and affection that she knew they deserved, but she kept them at arm’s length – for fear they’d leave her too, or to teach them the harsh ways of the world, I’m not really sure – and every one of the children suffered in some way because of her inability to give them what they craved from her.

Mathis is an excellent story-teller, and although she tells the story of this family in a nonlinear fashion, the format really worked for me. The reader gets a fully realized picture of this entire family by the time the book is through, and it became kind of a game for me to make connections between characters as the chapters went on – figuring out the birth order, who got along with which of their siblings, who was still living at home when certain events took place, things like that. The writing is effective, and while Mathis doesn’t use flowery language, her prose is very beautiful at times.

I really enjoyed The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. While it’s on the slim side, the connected short stories really worked for me and I felt deeply for the main character and her children. I connected with them in a way that was unexpected, given the nonlinear format of the book. Definitely give it a try if you like unconventional story-telling, fantastic characters, and an emotional story.

Delirium Stories: Hana, Annabel, and Raven by Lauren Oliver

Delirium Stories: Hana, Annabel, and Raven by Lauren Oliver
Published by HarperCollins

While giddily anticipating the conclusion to Lauren Oliver’s Delirium trilogy, Requiem, I figured the perfect thing to tide me over would be to read these three novellas focusing on three minor characters of the trilogy.

The first novella, Hana, tells the story of Lena’s best friend and the time in her life right before she was cured. I found it somewhat interesting to see the events in this story, which were shown from Lena’s perspective in the first novel, from Hana’s perspective instead. It was obvious that while both girls had experienced the same events, they interpreted them in such different ways. While I enjoyed Hana’s novella, other than seeing things from her point of view, it didn’t give me much else to grab onto. I would have liked more from Hana after her cure – but I hear rumors that we get that in Requiem, so I’ll try to remain patient!

Annabel was my favorite of the three novellas because we get to hear from Lena’s mother – we get to see what life was like when the cure was just becoming mandatory, and also we get to see what she lived through during her time in the crypts. The small snippets of information Annabel gives the reader about the time right when the cure was invented were fascinating to me, and I wanted so much more about that than I was given. Also I couldn’t help but admire the strength Annabel’s character possessed to get through so many hellish years in the crypts. This story was definitely the most emotionally affecting of the three and it made me the most excited for the third book.

Raven was one that also made me excited to read the conclusion of the trilogy because it was the one that gave the reader the most in terms of hints about what’s to come. Raven is another damaged, raw, but incredibly tough character (one of many in these books). I liked her in Pandemonium even though she was quite prickly and difficult to get to know at first, so it was nice to read more about her in this novella. This girl has been through a LOT of tough stuff and at a really young age too – so it’s no wonder how she’s mature beyond her years, yet naive in some very significant ways. Reading this story just made me feel closer to a character I didn’t feel that I got to know as well as I would have liked while reading the second book.

I’m definitely glad I read these novellas! I just got an alert today that Requiem is available for pick up at the library, so I’ll be reading that in the next couple of weeks. I’m super excited and these novellas just made that excitement even more intense!

News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories by Jennifer Haigh

News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories by Jennifer Haigh
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by the publisher for a TLC Book Tour

In this collection of short stories, Haigh returns to the fictional coal mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania, where her first novel, Baker Towers, took place. The men, women and children in these stories come from different backgrounds and circumstances but all are dealing with the economic collapse of their small town and how it has impacted each of them differently. These stories are interconnected, but not overwhelmingly so, giving the reader a glance inside this town and the people who inhabit it from many different perspectives.

Although I’ve read and loved two of Jennifer Haigh’s novels (Faith and Mrs. Kimble), I haven’t read Baker Towers, so I was slightly concerned I would have trouble with this collection of short stories featuring characters from that novel. Also the fact that I’ve been having difficulty enjoying short story collections lately made me even more worried that I wouldn’t like this book. I really shouldn’t have been nervous, though, because as I settled down with the book, I realized I was in Haigh’s capable hands and not for one second did she do me wrong here.

News from Heaven reminded me of how much I can LOVE short story collections when they are done the right way. Haigh managed to make me care about every single character in this book, even when some of them were featured for less than twenty pages. I also liked how several of the characters would show up in multiple stories, but never in a way that felt over-the-top or took away from the overall point of the story they showed up in. I felt so much affection for these characters, they felt like real people to me, with all their flaws and neuroses and issues, yet incredibly likable at the same time.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how lovely Haigh’s writing is. Her prose is nothing fancy, yet it’s beautiful in its simplicity and in how accurately she can depict a situation for the reader in so few pages. She quickly absorbs me with her words, sucking me into a story within paragraphs. It’s something I’ve admired about her in her previous books, but it became only too clear when I’m getting this involved within such a short period of time, as I did while reading these stories.

News from Heaven came at the perfect time for me, just when I was feeling like short stories maybe aren’t something I can enjoy anymore, Haigh proved to me that I was wrong. It takes the right author to make me fall in love with a short story collection and Haigh is just that author. I loved this book and look forward to reading the rest of Jennifer Haigh’s novels. Highly recommended.

A History of the Present Illness by Louise Aronson

Media of A History of the Present IllnessA History of the Present Illness by Louise Aronson
Published by Bloomsbury USA
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

This book of short stories takes readers through many different aspects of the healthcare and medical situation in the US today, focusing specifically on the San Francisco area. The subjects in Aronson’s stories are fictional, but their stories are based on personal experience and things she witnessed while working in the healthcare profession for years.

What I enjoyed about A History of the Present Illness is that the stories, while told about vastly different kinds of people, different medical issues, and told from widely different points of view, they somehow all fit together. This is a cohesive collection with a clear theme, and Aronson has a definite voice as she’s telling each story. And the writing is really good, so good that a few of these stories I wanted to keep reading based on the writing alone. I was fully invested in almost all of these stories and excited to see what the next one would bring upon finishing each of them.

What I didn’t like, and I think this is my problem, is that I didn’t LOVE each one of these stories, which makes it difficult for me to endorse the entire book. I think I need to take a break from short story collections, to be honest, but I say this knowing full well I’ll be reading this in the very near future. What can sometimes happen to me when reading short story collections is that the stories can sort of run together after a while. So maybe I need to read them more slowly? Take breaks between them? I’m not sure.

But whatever, this is still a really great collection! Aronson manages to create characters that seem real and true in very short periods of time. If you like short stories, or have an interest in the medical field, or just like great writing, I can recommend A History of the Present Illness.

Astray by Emma Donoghue

AstrayAstray by Emma Donoghue
Published by Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette
Review copy received at SIBA

From the publisher:

The fascinating characters that roam across the pages of Emma Donoghue’s stories have all gone astray: they are emigrants, runaways, drifters, lovers old and new. They are gold miners and counterfeiters, attorneys and slaves. They cross other borders too: those of race, law, sex, and sanity. They travel for love or money, incognito or under duress.

With rich historical detail, the celebrated author of Room takes us from puritan Massachusetts to revolutionary New Jersey, antebellum Louisiana to the Toronto highway, lighting up four centuries of wanderings that have profound echoes in the present. Astray offers us a surprising and moving history for restless times.

To say I was excited about this book when it caught my attention at SIBA would be an understatement. I was blown away by Donoghue’s genius with Room and highly anticipated whatever she wrote next. I do tend to enjoy short stories so I was even more looking forward to this one when I heard that’s what this book was.

I have to say, that although I did enjoy Astray, it wasn’t love like I was hoping for. What’s great about this book is that Donoghue’s writing is just as wonderful as I wanted it to be, and I appreciated the fact that all the stories did have a theme in common with one another. I also really enjoyed that each story has some aspect of historical truth to it, and after each story Donoghue enlightens the reader on what that truth is and how she was inspired by a particular person or event in history to write an entire short story around said person or event.

What I didn’t love, and this happens a lot with short story collections, is that I didn’t feel a consistency in how compelling the stories were throughout the book. A few I really liked, a few were just okay, and there were unfortunately one or two stories in this collection that bored me. So while the truth is that I was disappointed in some of the stories in this collection, there were aspects of the overall picture that I did enjoy tremendously. Because of that, I would still recommend reading Astray if you have enjoyed Donoghue’s work in the past and/or if you are a lover of short story collections.

Pilgrims by Elizabeth Gilbert

PilgrimsPilgrims by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published by Penguin

Originally published in 1997, this collection of short stories was Elizabeth Gilbert’s first foray into published fiction.

I’m one of the people who actually liked Eat, Pray, Love a LOT, so when I noticed that Gilbert has written fiction as well I knew I had to give it a try. I love her somewhat sarcastic sense of humor and her complete openness and honesty in her nonfiction, but unfortunately that same voice didn’t exactly translate in this collection of short stories.

It’s not that I disliked every one of these stories – in fact, there were several that were incredibly compelling and that I wanted more from. But for the most part, this collection felt to me like a bunch of stories about a bunch of boring people doing a whole lot of nothing. They just weren’t all that interesting and not enough happened in most of these stories to make me want to keep reading the rest of them.

Also, I couldn’t hear Gilbert’s voice in these stories. I could not reconcile the Elizabeth Gilbert I knew from Eat, Pray, Love and Committed to the writer of these stories – it felt to me that they were written by someone completely different. One can argue that she wrote this book when she was in a very different place in her life than when she wrote her two nonfiction books, but I suppose since I was hoping to hear her in these stories the fact that I didn’t was a disappointment.

So even though I really do like Elizabeth Gilbert, Pilgrims just wasn’t for me. I did enjoy a few of the stories, but as a whole this collection fell short of my expectations. I would only recommend this book if you are a huge short story person and looking to explore a collection about ordinary people going about their lives.

The Civilized World by Susi Wyss

The Civilized World - Susi WyssThe Civilized World by Susi Wyss
Published by Holt Paperbacks, an imprint of Macmillan
Review copy provided by the publicist

The Civilized World, a novel in stories, features a host of characters and several different plot lines. So to save myself time and anguish, instead of summarizing it for you I’ll just use the publisher’s summary.

When Adjoa leaves Ghana to find work in the Ivory Coast, she hopes that one day she’ll return home to open a beauty parlor. Her dream comes true, though not before she suffers a devastating loss—one that will haunt her for years, and one that also deeply affects Janice, an American aid worker who no longer feels she has a place to call home. But the bustling Precious Brother Salon is not just the “cleanest, friendliest, and most welcoming in the city.” It’s also where locals catch up on their gossip; where Comfort, an imperious busybody, can complain about her American daughter-in-law, Linda; and where Adjoa can get a fresh start on life—or so she thinks, until Janice moves to Ghana and unexpectedly stumbles upon the salon.

At once deeply moving and utterly charming, The Civilized World follows five women as they face meddling mothers-in-law, unfaithful partners, and the lingering aftereffects of racism, only to learn that their cultural differences are outweighed by their common bond as women. With vibrant prose, Susi Wyss explores what it means to need forgiveness—and what it means to forgive.

Another reason I’m using the publisher’s summary here is because attempting to write this review is reminding me of what a bad blogger I have become. I know that I really enjoyed The Civilized World but unfortunately I can’t remember much else about it. Horrible, right? Part of it has to do with the fact that I read the book over a month before writing this review. (Hence the bad blogger.)

But anyways, I typically love books written in this novel-in-stories format, and The Civilized World was no different. I definitely enjoyed getting to know the characters, and while there were many of them for such a short book, I had no trouble keeping them straight. And I remember thinking the writing was beautiful.

I’ll leave you with this: if you like multicultural fiction and/or novels disguised as short stories, give The Civilized World a try.