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Memoir / Autobiography

  • The Places Left Unfilled

    by M.C. Cauley

    Rating: 9.00

    Idea: The book traverses a painful and difficult subject - the author's sexual abuse at age 14 at the hands of a trusted man more than three times her own age - with unsparing honesty and a fine ear for dialogue, and a notable absence of self-pity for this serious theme.

    Prose/Style: With gripping prose and perfectly paced, this memoir reads like the kind of novel one doesn't want to put down. The author's ability to slip into the skin of her teenage self is uncanny. The dialogue is written excellently, in an authentic manner and pitch-perfect in tone.

    Originality: The book is reminiscent of Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss in its exploration of the author's sexual and emotional exploitation by a pedophile skilled at spotting and manipulating a young girl's loneliness and her need for an adult who will pretend to care for her, but manages to be singular in its narration and tone. The author's wracking analysis of the emotional and psychological hold her abuser retained on her is devastating.

    Character Development/Execution: The characters are vivid and life-like. It is impossible to read this book without yearning to find a way to go back in time and protect this child from the events that would turn her into the healing and powerful woman who wrote this searing memoir.

  • Idea: This Sweet Life: How We Lived After Kirby Died is an extremely well-written and hauntingly emotional, heartbreaking account of loss. The text expertly combines the memoir of the authors losing a woman who was their daughter and sister with the account of bringing the man who caused her death to justice.

    Prose/Style: The authors balance the skills of composing flashbacks combined with present-day events to re-create the life of the subject and walk readers through her tragic death.

    Originality: This poignant recount of love and tragedy hits all the right marks. The main suggestion would be that the use of italics for Jean make her sections a little bit harder to read, but that's a minor alteration to what is otherwise a very strong read.

    Character Development/Execution: The execution of the book -- alternating written chapters by both mother and daughter – has the potential easily get lost in the timing of the events, but it doesn't. The weaving of both stories and past and present tense is done extremely well.

  • No More Dodging Bullets

    by Amy Herrig

    Rating: 8.75

    Idea: Herrig's narrative of her personal and professional struggles is compelling and keeps the reader riveted from the memoir's start to its finish. Though the work at times veers into overly technical descriptions of judicial matters, readers will remain invested in her turbulent adolescence through the aftermath of her criminal case.

    Prose: Herrig's prose is conversational, funny, direct, and engaging--perfect for a memoir. Her voice shines through the stories, making readers both sympathetic and critical of her experiences and actions. One quibble: a run-through by a copyeditor would help to fix grammatical errors and typos.

    Originality: This memoir is a roller coaster ride of emotional, legal, and personal struggles openly and honestly portrayed. Elements of seemingly sincere contrition and emotional resonance elevate the narrative, creating a complex and complete personal story.

    Character/Execution: Herrig writes about her legal issues and her path toward spiritual and emotional growth in an authentic manner. She confesses her shortcomings with refreshing candor, presenting a nuanced self-portrait. Her depictions of supporting characters--her father, friends, family, and legal associates--are sufficient, yet would benefit from further development.

  • Idea: The Will of Heaven is more than just the standard memoir. It is a double story, that of a woman's recovery from alcohol addiction and of her growing passion and interest in Kenyan elephants. The chapters fluctuate between these themes, and readers will wonder how the author has so seamlessly threaded the African stories together so well without being there --- presumably, newspaper articles, scientific journal articles, and other research methods.

    Prose/Style: The prose is exemplary and one of the greatest strengths of this book. What shines through to readers and will stick with them is the passion behind the writing about the elephants.

    Originality: This text is quite original, especially in the way it ties together the very diverse themes of alcoholism, trauma and grief, and orphaned elephants so well.

    Character/Execution: Debbie's character is quite clear and memorable; she undergoes a huge transformation in her years-long attempts to reach her amazing goals. The elephant keepers and administrators in Africa are also quite clearly portrayed.

  • Positive Vision

    by Ken Brandt

    Rating: 8.75

    Idea: This fun, informative book moves quickly, but is still chock-full of humor and heart (and interesting facts). Brandt's organization of info and amusing anecdotes into various categories works well to keep the pace and the reader's interest. At times, some stories or observations included in certain sections don't mesh with the others and trip up the narrative's pacing.

    Prose/Style: Brandt's conversational prose evokes a friendly tone of humor, heart, and optimism. The included pictures add to the prose and make the anecdotes even funnier.

    Originality: Brandt takes his struggle with poor vision and spins it off into a memoir that's entertaining and informative. He candidly shares his life experiences, while also opening the reader's eyes to certain truths--profound and humorous--that people with poor vision experience. This "take" on his reality is unique, fun, and engaging.

    Character Development/Execution: Brandt's strong personality, one of positivity and tongue-in-cheek humor, comes through loud and clear in his memoir. There aren't many strong supporting characters to speak of, which, based on the info about the author’s mother at the end, may be a missed opportunity.

  • Too Long Ago: A Childhood Memory. A Vanished World.

    by David Pietrusza

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot: This polished and gently humored work of memoir contains two threads: Pietrusza’s personal history of his Polish family between the '50s and today, and the history and decline of the small town of Amsterdam, New York.

    Prose/Style: Pietrusza's experience as an author is clear throughout the well-developed text, which offers a graceful blending of personal insights with historical content.

    Originality: This history focuses on a small, unique town in New York, and of the personal story of the author's family. The details of Polish community and Polish food (such as stuffed cabbage rolls, pierogi, and many beers) are especially engaging. Pietrusza also discusses at length, and with great nostalgia, TV shows and movies.

    Character Development/Execution: The characters, including the author, are warmly and quite fully detailed. The author’s voice as a professional historian is memorable and accessible. Much of the book concerns family background, but the story becomes more universally appealing when discussing the history of Polish settlement, the upstate New York region, and baseball.


  • Clarity

    by Diana Estill

    Rating: 8.50

    Idea: In Clarity, Estill recounts her harrowing journey as the daughter of a narcissistic, sexually exploitative father and a passive-aggressive, enabling mother. In the tradition of The Liar's Club and Running with Scissors, the book is a testament to the slow, painful process of reclaiming oneself from the wreckage of the past after a lifetime spent suffering under the despotism of a mentally ill parent.

    Prose/Style: Estill writes with the wit and grit of Mary Karr and Jeanette Walls. Although, like theirs, her subject matter is anything but funny, the author manages to find humor in relating the absurd and often brutal situations her feckless father imposes on her and the rest of the family his madness holds in thrall.

    Originality: While the precocious plunge into premature adult responsibilities forced upon the children of mentally unstable parents will be a familiar on to readers of The Liar's Club and The Glass Castle, Estill's voice is both fresh and vigorous. Her narrative captures the terror, pain and yes, even the hilarious aspects of a life lived in a home governed by the whims of a dictatorial, emotionally underdeveloped egomaniac, and the poignancy of growing into an adult unable to fully disengage from the responsibilities of loving a parent who demonstrates only unending demands and relentless abuse in return.

    Character Development/Execution: Told with sardonic wit and unflinching candor, the narrative hums with tension between the smart, savvy survivor of a daughter and the monstrous, Santini-like, sexually exploitative father. While this is not a comfortable book to read, it is a memorable one.

  • Idea: Spencer’s coming-of-age piece is a memoir that flows well and holds the reader's interest because of precise, colorful details of the people, places, manners, and food he encounters on his travels.

    Prose/Style: Spencer is a very clear, effective, and fluid writer, with a prodigious vocabulary and great descriptive powers that will make his readers feel like they have truly accompanied him on his journey.

    Originality: While other authors have written about these kinds of quests, what is unusual and unique here is the individual man, his routes, and the time during which he undertook this huge, strenuous journey: the 1970s.

    Character Development/Execution: Spencer appears to be impeccably honest, even growing angry and frustrated when he remains sick for quite a long time and when various locals treat him poorly. He feels  "pushed beyond the bounds of his sanity”; however, he always strives to understand the cultures and habits of the people he encounters and is open to learning a great deal about their customs and religion. 

  • And She Called It Worship

    by Jeanelle Frontin

    Rating: 8.25

    Idea: Frontin's And She Called It Worship is a deeply intriguing memoir of coming-of-age, spiritual searching, and self-actualization. Frontin's personal narrative is as compelling as the journey toward healing and wholeness she lays out for readers to take themselves.

    Prose: Frontin's excellent writing allows what might otherwise be insignificant moments of personal growth, to hold meaning. The author's self-awareness, doubt, and intellectual curiosity, more than sustains the narrative.

    Originality: This work is highly unique both in concept and in structure. With elements of memoir as well as self-help, the book defies easy categorization.

    Character/Execution: The author emerges as a complex, ambitious, and deeply curious individual, whose reflections on religion, God, and faith, are especially insightful. Other figures within the narrative don't always rise off the page, instead serving more as points of reference for the author's formative experiences.

  • Riding the Edge, My Love Song to Deborah

    by Michael Tobin

    Rating: 8.25

    Idea: Tobin’s memoir is about an adventure of grand proportions, as well as of two individuals working to determine whether their relationship will persevere.

    Prose/Style: Tobin is a very engaging writer with clear prose. Especially delightful are his passages on landscape, landmarks, and various regional cuisines. The chapters on Paris and Corfu are fascinating and memorable.

    Originality: Although this memoir initially reads like a straight travel narrative, it is much more. The book’s emotional substance stems from Michael and Deborah’s work to resolve issues within their close relationship and to ultimately determine the course of their future.

    Character/Execution: Both Michael and Deborah are quite thoroughly depicted as loving, intrepid, and curious, while several engaging, eccentric people they meet on their travels provide additional texture.


    by Justin Barker

    Rating: 8.25

    Idea: This gripping true story, of a young animal activist on a quest to free captive bears, will appeal to environmentalists, animal lovers, and casual readers alike.

    Prose: The story is clear, direct, and easy to follow, without feeling simple or boring. There is a well-maintained level of suspense throughout.

    Originality: Barker ignored the societal limits of his youth, fighting for animal rights from the time he was in seventh grade. The story’s originality stems from its inspiring unlikelihood and its message to children everywhere: that they can make a difference.

    Character/Execution: Barker’s personal journey sometimes feels separate from his work with the bears, but his relationship with his parents, and their fluctuating approval of his activism, is one of the most intriguing parts of the memoir.

  • Idea: Gray delivers a fast-paced, enlightening journey, finding time for playful anecdotes and historical exposition that compliments the story's main focus.

    Prose: Gray weaves her story with a soft, human elegance that colors the whole affair with the hues of a coffee-table conversation, while affecting a scholarly vernacular that elucidates and entertains in equal measure.

    Originality: By framing Gidon's story via the context of his long and storied life, rather than isolating it to his time as a Holocaust survivor, and playing it against her own experiences as his chronicler, Gray constructs an unorthodox, surprising form of memoir.

    Character/Execution: Gidon and Gray inform each other's character throughout the memoir, in a way that initially makes the former feel like background compared to Gray's own foreground observations, but unfurls to create an interesting ebb and flow between the two.

  • Allegiance

    by Darien Hsu Gee

    Rating: 8.00

    Idea: Gee delivers a sparely written micro-memoir that explores Chinese American identity, family, and coming-of-age. With an overarching theme of existing between two worlds, Allegiance offers a striking collection of memories and reflections.

    Prose: Gee is a polished and precise writer, whose poetic vignettes capture the haunting intensity of memories as filtered through time.

    Originality: Though works about cultural identity and its conflicts are familiar, with its visceral language, poetic sensibility, and visual presentation, Allegiance takes a unique approach to memoir.

    Character/Execution: While readers may not gain a complete sense of the author's experiences, Allegiance provides a lovely and impressionistic look into the small, formative moments that help to create a sense of self.

  • Idea: This book presents a new and clever approach to World War II stories, focusing on the biographies of siblings buried in U.S. military cemeteries overseas.

    Prose/Style: The text reads clearly and is structured effectively. A large number of family histories  have been researched, and are presented in short segments of a few pages each. This book is easy to pick up and enjoy in short bursts.

    Originality: The book offers a different approach that works well in its favor. The stories it presents are many and varied, and create a larger collage of an increasingly distant era.

    Character Development/Execution: The short sections allow for ease of reading, while the well-integrated images are invaluable. This text taps into the curiosity one can feel if flipping through a photo album in a stranger’s house. This is further strengthened by the variety of subject matter, as the investigations feature families from different geographical, socioeconomic, and ethnic backgrounds.

  • Like the Wind I Go

    by Vahid Imani

    Rating: 8.00

    Idea: Like the Wind I Go is a genuine, fresh account of the author’s experiences as a young man in 1978 Iran. Readers will gain a deeper understanding of Iranian history and culture from this informative and personal first-hand narrative.

    Prose: Imani’s prose is clear and soundly integrates historically relevant details with more intimate storytelling. Dialogue is at times strained and ultimately less engaging than the narrative sections.

    Originality: Imani’s account of his life in Iran during a period of intense conflict and uncertainty, is surely unique. Most intriguing is the author’s struggle to reconcile his yearning for a life in America, with his obligations to his home country.

    Character/Execution: The author is most successful when describing the political and social tumult he experiences in his young life and the ways in which these events shape him psychologically and emotionally. The recreation of interactions between family members, friends, and strangers, can come across as somewhat flat and inauthentic.

  • A Young Person's Field Guide to Finding Lost Shipwrecks

    by Laurie Anne Zaleski

    Rating: 8.00

    Idea: Zaleski, a marine geologist, offers a riveting, photo-filled account of her time aboard an archaeological research vessel in search of an ancient shipwreck.

    Prose: Zaleski’s narrative blends science, history, technology, and archaeology, with candid, day-to-day descriptions of life aboard a research vessel. Middle grade readers will delight in both the mundane aspects of the journey and the moments of excitement and anticipation.

    Originality: The journey Zaleski chronicles aboard the Hercules is wholly unique, and sure to engage young readers. In terms of content, tone, and presentation, this work is perfect for fans of the Scientists in the Field series of children’s nonfiction titles.

    Character/Execution: The author is keenly aware of her readership and capably holds their interest through detailed descriptions of life at sea on a research vessel.