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Memoir / Autobiography

  • Idea: This illuminating memoir tells the multi-generational story of a “family/activist band” whose members travel the country playing music, sharing stories, and advocating for vulnerable communities.

    Prose: The co-authors write in a style that is both highly readable and informative. Polished descriptive language heightens the country-traversing appeal of the story, allowing readers to gain a clear sense of place and circumstance. Quotations and dialogue read naturally.

    Originality: Original in scope and approach, this book is thoroughly researched and tells a unique story of a fascinating set of activist entertainers. Photos and discographic information chronicle the history of the group, while offering fans greater insight into their dynamics and musical contributions.

    Execution: Part tribute, part history, this well-executed memoir admirably contextualizes  biographical and historical details, while focusing on the spirit of activism and power of music.

  • 33 Percent Rockstar

    by S. C. Sterling

    Rating: 10.00

    Idea: By using a linear narrative, the reader sees Sterling’s progression from budding guitarist to recognizable musician. Circumstances wrap up wonderfully with an ending that is both spot-on and satisfying.

    Prose: Sterling’s voice is straightforward, clear, and offers the perfect balance of humor and candor. His writing is captivating and intimate; readers will readily become lost in the author's story of struggle, growth, and the music that sustained him.

    Originality: Sterling has a life story that is truly one of a kind. His experiences, successes, and failures while playing with multiple bands and band members are relayed in a manner that is honest, amusing, and often poignant.

    Execution: As the central figure in his story, Sterling displays refreshing self-awareness. His personal imperfections and emotional tumult, along with the often gritty backdrop of the music world, allow for this story to be both relatable and compelling.

  • Idea/Concept: Hill’s narrative progresses from diagnosis to the uneven terrain of recovery at the perfect pace. Nostalgic memories occasionally slow down the plot before things progress forward again.

    Prose: Hill has a fantastic, calculated control over his prose. He expertly blends comedy into his narrative, creating the ideal balance of light-hearted humor and everyday unease.

    Originality: As Hill reminds the reader, everyone’s cancer journey is unique. Hill’s personal history with cancer, combined with his unrelenting candor make his story one of a kind.

    Execution: Hill is raw and reflective, providing an unusually candid look at how prostate cancer affected and forever changed his life. His musings give the reader an intimate look at his psyche as he progresses from an average man in the throes of middle age to a cancer survivor over the span of four months.

    Blurb: A funny and honest look at life with prostate cancer.

  • Hundred Percent Chance: A Memoir

    by Robert K. Brown

    Rating: 9.00

    Concept/Idea: Brown presents a compelling journey from pre-diagnosis to recovery that movingly explores the impact of leukemia on a young person's life. Frequent unexpected humor provides refreshing levity. Readers battling their own diagnosis--or other overwhelming circumstances--will value Brown's candid insights. 

    Prose: Brown's voice is immediately distinctive and inviting, with a clear and easy storytelling style. 

    Originality: While memoirs of surviving disease are plenty, Hundred Percent Chance stands apart through its genuine humor and unflinching portrayal of both the physical and psychological struggles that accompany a diagnosis of disease. Brown avoids inspirational platitudes, instead demonstrating the need for perspective and perseverance in the face of illness.  

    Execution: Every person Brown introduces, whether their role is significant or small, will leave a memorable impression on readers. This memoir's focus on the tiny moments that ultimately shape and define a life, are particularly poignant and engrossing. 

  • The Human Spirit Under Siege

    by George Baum

    Rating: 8.75

    Idea: A Jewish family torn apart under Nazi rule, most of whom faced extermination, emerge from the pages of this survivor’s illustrated memoir, a heartbreaking account that allows a candid view of their devastation. Historical records and photographs enrich the reading experience, although these images tend to overwhelm the brief text.

    Prose: Succinct, straightforward, and heart-rending, this revealing autobiography reaches into the past to illuminate the present and, like evidence in a time capsule, its contents will educate. Immersion—a nonstop read from beginning to end—is the best way to embark on this journey.

    Originality: Holocaust memoirs have been written in abundance, detailing the horrific genocide during World War II—every approach different, every story unique, every personal tragedy an unspeakable nightmare. This particular account stands out for its clarity.

    Execution: From the viewpoint of an innocent boy, and later, a traumatized man, this haunting look at existence in the former Czechoslovakia under Hitler’s regime, then at the Terezin transitional concentration camp, brings to life the terror of anti-Semitism, even after WWII ended. Loss of business, loss of money, loss of home, loss of family, and finally, loss of life—all are addressed in this work's detailed description of atrocities.

    Blurb: A survivor’s harrowing, photograph-enhanced memoir sheds light on the holocaust.


  • She's Got This! Essays on Standing Strong and Moving On

    by Joanne Hartman & Mary Claire Hill

    Rating: 8.75

    Idea: The subjects explored in this empowering essay collection range widely, but are anchored in themes relating to life purpose, transitions, and redefining personal truths.

    Prose: The essays in this anthology, while somewhat inconsistent in overall quality, are varied, engaging, and professionally edited. The contributors powerfully explore seminal moments of their lives with refreshing candor.

    Originality: While anthologies devoted to the topic of female empowerment aren't uncommon, these essays offer fresh, personal perspectives on navigating life changes and achieving self actualization.

    Execution: This collection shows clear vision and professional execution. While each essay stands alone, the editors maintain a sense of thematic consistency throughout the works, providing readers with a gratifying overarching reading experience.

  • Love, Death & Tango

    by Maraya Loza Koxahn

    Rating: 8.50

    Idea/Concept: Full of exciting twists and turns, Koxahn’s memoir has something for everyone. The writer’s passion for tango ties together her varied life experiences.

    Prose: Koxahn’s strength is painting simple yet vivid scenes, from the evening she told her dancing partner she loved him to the time she participated in an Ayahuasca ceremony. Her decision to incorporate her personal emails keeps the manuscript lively and refreshing.

    Originality: Koxahn’s myriad of adventures during her journey abroad are unpredictable and enjoyable to read. Even when writing about some of the most tragic moments in her life, such as the death of her ex-husband, Koxahn tackles topics with unique flair and grace.

    Execution: Koxahn’s personal experience descriptions here are unapologetic and real. Although she constantly hopes for a dramatic transformation, she leaves Buenos Aires feeling almost as if no changes had occurred at all; this dose of reality is the perfect ending to her story.

  • Idea: Over the Hill and Gaining Speed compiles lifestyle columns that author Rock penned for the Bucks County Herald circa the early 2010s, around the time of her retirement from full-time work. A searching, reflective tone helps tie the collection together, but the columns -- though often engaging and artful -- vary more widely in subject than the subtitle "Reflections in Retirement" might suggest.

    Prose: Rock is a polished, thoughtful columnist, and the selections here are well composed and meticulously edited. She's skilled at infusing the personal and particular with a sense of the universal, as in her excellent, moving column about the return of a "prodigal son." Later in the collection, she reveals herself to be a portraitist in prose, offering compelling character sketches of hikers, local storytellers, and "Ray the Bluebird Guy." For all that, Rock's work is at its best in that reflective mode promised by the title, when she sets down notes for her first grandchild about what she has learned over the years, or dares to wonder in print about what to do in retirement with "this gift of life."

    Originality: Nobody else is writing about Ray the Bluebird Guy. Rock displays the strengths a good newspaper lifestyle columnist must, such as snappy engaging prose, an interest in local characters, and a keen sense of time's passing -- this collection offers paens to spring, to February, to the "irrational" season of Advent. But the work here is most original when Rock takes her own life (and the lives of her family and neighbors) as inspiration. Even in columns on familiar subjects or turns of the calendar, she always finds a fresh insight to share.

    Execution: The sketches of Bucks County residents will be of interest to local historians for generations, and Rock's columns about retirement, aging, and the passages of her own family offer many rewards. The collection's organization doesn't enhance the columns or reveal connections between them, and over the course of the book no sense of a larger narrative emerges. Several columns in the book's first section, "On the Road," recount travels of Rock's that she doesn't quite (within the space restrictions of a newspaper column) make fascinating to those of us who weren't there. One exception: The knockout column "Of Baseball and Battlefields," which is about the surprising connections Rock draws between finds at seemingly unrelated historic sights. The book is best when Rock alerts to people, places, and ideas that are not familiar.

  • Flying Alone

    by Beth Ruggiero York

    Rating: 8.00

    Idea: The determination, suspense, and pilot's life milieu at the heart of Flying Alone are all inherently compelling. The book offers many tense and exciting scenes of in-air danger, a pained love affair, heartbroken accounts of several acquaintances' crashes, vibrant portraits of airport characters, and the sense that its showing readers a fascinating private world, one full of cocky pilots and business owners all too eager to flout the rules.

    Prose: York excels at in-the-moment accounts of flight and its dangers, making clear to readers what is happening no matter how complex the physics and the pilots' maneuvering. She's also adept at sketching characters and capturing their essence in dialogue. Her prose is sturdy and unfussy but sometimes repetitive, and often dispassionate to a fault. For all its gripping incidents, Flying Alone often keeps its author's feelings too distant for readers to track, especially in lengthy scenes with her bosses, instructors, and lover.

    Originality: York tells her unique story with many individually compelling and surprising incidents to share.

    Execution: Flying Alone seems most grounded when its author is facing danger in the air. When the book turns to life on earth, its author's thoughts and feelings are subordinated to lengthy scenes of colleagues and bosses and work where it's not quite clear what York thinks or feels. The material could be more compelling if its author were more present.

  • Rescue the Teacher, Save the Child!

    by Paula Baack

    Rating: 8.00

    Idea/Concept: Although Rescue the Teacher, Save the Child! sits somewhat uneasily between memoir and guidebook, the author ultimately presents a highly informed, insightful look into the state of education in America and the toxic work environments many educators face.

    Prose: This book is well-written and organized, while the author's prose conveys her passion for teaching and her frustration toward the many impediments facing teachers and students today.  

    Originality: As a devoted educator, Baack backs up her findings with her own unique experiential evidence, while broadening the scope of the book to focus on the collective experiences of teachers and students in America. 

    Execution: Baack's own experiences offer credibility and immediacy to the sections that are more pointedly informational. While the focus of the book is more on how to rescue teachers than on how to save students, Baack’s ideas are inspired and potentially broadly beneficial. Her clearly-referenced religious overtones sometime interfere with the more actionable advice, but not significantly. She does not proselytize, but, rather, espouses values that many of us, religious or not, still hold.

    Blurb: Baack makes an urgent plea to teachers, administrators, parents, and students to work collaboratively to improve the American education system to some of its former high standards. 

  • Sober Heart: Life and Love in Recovery

    by Mary Ellin Lerner

    Rating: 7.75

    Idea: Lerner's bite-sized essays deliver wisdom via vulnerable anecdotes and quietly lyrical confessions. Though their brief length makes them feel at times like incomplete thoughts, the work resonates with emotional candor.

    Prose: The clear and compelling prose comes across as an intimate letter from a close friend who can assess problematic situations clearly and prescribe solutions in a quick and satisfying manner. That it's the author accounting for her own foibles, affords the memoir particular power and grace.

    Originality: The author focuses on an often-parodied character of a mom who loves wine too much, affording the subject personality and dimension, while shining a light on the toxic environment addiction creates even in middle class settings. Lerner movingly captures the motivations that lead to substance abuse.

    Execution: Lerner writes in a reflective, genuine manner that relays the author's particular past mistakes, while providing a generally relatable, poignant narrative within the present.

  • Idea: This text follows the history of Chattanooga, especially its role in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The details here reveal extensive and admirable background research.

    Prose: The prose/style is somewhat scholastic and formal, but also somewhat journalistic, and the book might have been slightly differently organized to its benefit. This text should most interest those invested in the field of African American studies or history or Tennesseans themselves. The research is meticulous and impeccable.

    Originality: This book is highly original in its concept. The book focuses on the Civil Rights Movement in the South, but draws in extensive research and case studies.

    Execution: All of the characters, at least of Mapp's family and community, are depicted as heroic and extremely dedicated. These were not rich people, but rather were incredibly hard-working in their fight for justice. Only Mapp himself stands out as a fully fleshed-out character, however.

  • And Every Word Is True

    by Gary McAvoy

    Rating: 7.75

    Idea: McAvoy revisits an infamous crime immortalized through Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Relying on newly uncovered documents, the author brings fresh insights to the case with extensive elaboration on the Clutter murders, its investigation, and Truman Capote himself.

    Prose: McAvoy writes in a clear-eyed, no nonsense prose style ideally suited to the true crime genre. The author capably and meticulously details information in a manner that will keep readers engaged.

    Originality: By combining elements of true crime and memoir, McAvoy offers an immersive account of an infamous murder case. Most unusually,  McAvoy raises compelling questions about the veracity of Truman Capote's accounts and the role that In Cold Blood played in influencing public opinion.

    Execution: While McAvoy doesn't arrive at definitive truths concerning the Clutter murders and rehashes well-established details, he shapes new theories about the case, casting archival and forensic materials in a new light.

  • Idea: The book's structural presentation occasionally meanders from one storyline to the next, but each story shared is individually interesting, endearing, and often humorous. Collectively, the tales form a touching narrative about human and animal bonds.

    Prose: Roller’s greatest strength lies in the book's descriptive language and the author's ability to craft evocative, viscerally powerful scenes. Those moments unfolding in nature and during periods of travel and exploration, are the most alluring.

    Originality: Each of the animal characters presented carry distinct personalities and each comes to life in memorable moments. Their tales, set in various states from Hawaii to Ohio to Pennsylvania, make for a one-of-a-kind adventure.

    Execution: While Roller's memoir is readable, engaging, and sweetly eccentric, the story ends somewhat abruptly, with a quality of open-endedness that may be unfulfilling for invested readers.

  • The Beginning of the End

    by Tara Blair Ball

    Rating: 6.75

    Idea/Concept: Ball delivers a candid and genuine memoir about a broken relationship, addiction, and human frailty. The author’s honesty about her own mistakes and moral complexity, is particularly refreshing.

    Prose: The author’s prose is refined and clear-eyed, if bare bones in style.

    Originality: Many memoirs explore themes of addiction and problematic marriages, but Ball’s experiences are distinctly her own, and she delivers a cathartic, potentially relatable narrative.

    Execution: This work offers an often captivating look into the inner workings of a dysfunctional relationship and the chilling impact of secrecy and distrust. While in part due to Ball’s modest and restrained writing style, readers may crave additional substance, with more in-depth exploration of the author’s emotional and psychological states.

  • Idea: With elements of travelogue and memoir, Porter delivers a lively account of her enviable international travels, replete with perilous adventures, insights, and excitement.

    Prose: Porter's frank, conversational prose style is well-suited to the genre. While reflections on  lessons learned from her journeys may strike some readers as overly quaint or prescriptive, the work provides readers with a clear sense of the author behind the journeys.

    Originality: Stories of world travel and venturing into unknown territories are hardly unusual, but Porter's voice is pronounced and engaging, while the author's passion for the study and teaching of yoga provides a somewhat uncommon thread.

    Execution: Porter's story is peppered with intriguing encounters, warm reflections, and quiet moments of wisdom.