Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan

Say You're One of ThemSay You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan
Published by Little, Brown and Company

These two novellas and three short stories tell about life in five African countries from the perspectives of the children who are facing some of the most difficult crises of our time. An eight-year-old living in a shanty in Nairobi experiences his twelve-year-old sister selling her body to pay for the family’s most basic needs, such as food and school fees. A young girl in Ethiopia learns that she must cut ties with her best friend because of the religious wars going on all around her. A Muslim boy denounces his religion and attempts to pose as a Christian on a bus in Benin, headed for a distant relative’s home to escape religious persecution. Two young children in Nigeria have been orphaned by the AIDS crisis and are being sold by their uncle into slavery. And the last story, set in Rwanda, is about a young girl who watches her parents, on opposite sides of the conflict there, resort to the most devastating choices possible as a reaction to their circumstances.

I knew going into this book that it would be a brutal emotional roller coaster, and I was not wrong about that. These stories made me feel anger, frustration, rage, sadness, devastation, and horror at what the people in these stories were forced to endure and especially at the fact that these are real life situations that millions of children in the world have had to experience and, in some cases, are still experiencing. There is no milder way to say it other than that this book is heartbreaking and extremely difficult to get through. You have to put on an emotional thick skin in order to read this book, but once you do, it is definitely worth the pain. You can’t help but feel deep empathy for these characters while at the same time hoping and praying that the world will one day become a better place and people won’t have to suffer this way at some point in the future.

As far as my feelings about the individual novellas and stories, I have to be honest and say that I found the short stories more compelling than the novellas. I felt that in both novellas, the author was a bit meandering and the detail wasn’t quite enough for me to understand why those particular stories were chosen to be novellas and not short stories. There just wasn’t enough meat in these two, in my opinion, and I felt they would have both been better served had they been cut almost in half. That being said, the short stories were insanely good and I wanted more from each of these, which to me is the mark of a fantastic short story. The characters were extremely compelling, nuanced, and sympathetic, and I wanted to read more about them, to see how they were able to persevere despite their circumstances, long after I finished their stories. Of the five stories in this collection, it is the three short stories that have stayed in my brain space long after finishing the book, not the two novellas.

Say You’re One of Them, while a slightly uneven collection, overall really impressed me. I hesitate to recommend the entire thing because I wasn’t as into the novellas as I was the short stories, but as the short stories were truly incredible I do still recommend the book. I wish the two novellas hit me as hard as the three short stories did, but still this is a collection worth reading. A difficult, extremely emotional book, but an important one, too.

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Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Difficult WomenDifficult Women by Roxane Gay
Published by Grove Press

The short stories in this collection are about women that society may call “difficult” but that word, in this collection, translates more accurately to a variety of words that make up any woman’s experiences in life. The thing about this collection, though, is that most of the women Gay writes about have a much more difficult situation than your “average” woman.

There is no avoiding the fact that these stories are dark. They are emotional. They are, at times, very tough to get through. The women in this collection are experiencing some of the most tragic and emotionally wrecking things that can happen to women, or people in general, in life. There is abuse of all kinds. There is poverty. There is death of parents, friends, children. And much more. But despite their circumstances, the women in these stories are persevering, trying to get though the difficult things in life and come out on the other side better than before. Some of them succeed. Some of them, sadly, do not.

What I found so remarkable about this collection is Gay’s writing and her ability to bring these characters to life in such short amounts of time. In a matter of five to ten pages, she can bring the reader deeply into a character’s existence and truly make the reader know about and care about that character. It’s amazing. I absolutely loved her writing. And although the book was not the easiest to get through, I really loved this collection.

The Shore by Sara Taylor

The ShoreThe Shore by Sara Taylor
Published by Hogarth

From the publisher:

Welcome to The Shore: a collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean. Where clumps of evergreens meet wild ponies, oyster-shell roads, tumble-down houses, unwanted pregnancies, murder, storm-making and dark magic in the marshes. . .

Situated off the coast of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, the group of islands known as the Shore has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. Sanctuary to some but nightmare to others, it’s a place they’ve inhabited, fled, and returned to for hundreds of years. From a half-Shawnee Indian’s bold choice to flee an abusive home only to find herself with a man who will one day try to kill her to a brave young girl’s determination to protect her younger sister as methamphetamine ravages their family, to a lesson in summoning storm clouds to help end a drought, these women struggle against domestic violence, savage wilderness, and the corrosive effects of poverty and addiction to secure a sense of well-being for themselves and for those they love.

Together their stories form a deeply affecting legacy of two barrier island families, illuminating 150 years of their many freedoms and constraints, heartbreaks, and pleasures. Conjuring a wisdom and beauty all its own, The Shore is a richly unique, stunning novel that will resonate with readers long after turning its final pages, establishing Sara Taylor as a promising new voice in fiction.

This is one of those books that I expected to love and thought it was just okay to good. Reasons I expected to love it: everyone else has (duh), interconnected short stories, beautiful writing. Those three things are true, and they were the reasons I didn’t dislike it, but The Shore didn’t wow me like I had expected it would.

The stories here are mostly quiet. The characters are mostly sad, a bit desperate, the town they live in gradually goes to shit over the years and the inhabitants suffer because of that. There is a lot of poverty, abuse, and heartache in these stories and honestly I felt depressed while reading the book. I kept hoping for someone in these stories to have a happy life, to grow up and get the hell out of this crumbling town and soul-crushing life that most of these people led, and with few exceptions that didn’t happen.

The last three stories in the book were my favorite and redeemed the book for me – definitely taking it from a solid two-star read to a three-star one. I loved how Taylor brought the first story back full-circle and completed that particular character’s story arc. I really needed to read that after having my heart broken with that character’s situation in the first story. And I found it incredibly interesting and exciting how the story jumps forward to a post-apocalyptic future in two of the final stories.

Overall, I liked the book but it wasn’t as great as I was hoping it would be. I am a fan of this author’s writing, though, and would definitely be open to picking up books or stories she writes in the future.

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.