Memoir / Autobiography
by M.C. Cauley
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.
by Tricia Frey
Idea: Frey's River Love is a story of rescue - the woman rescuing the dog, and the dog rescuing the woman, both forever having a positive impact on each other’s lives. This is a lovely, gentle, uplifting book that is written with humor, intelligence and a lot of heart
Prose/Style: Frey writes simply, but with an eloquence born of a deep love of her subject - Sheldon, the wandering, terrified Sheltie who strays into her arms and heart. Her spare, yet lyrical prose effectively celebrates her profound bond with her beloved pet, and with nature itself.
Originality: If you're a dog lover who has been hankering for something in the spirit of James Herriot's books - combining great tenderness, an awe of the wondrous beauty of the natural world, and a fierce determination to advocate for any animal that needs a champion and a nurturer - this book will suit you well. While there are a lot of dog books out there, this is one of the best.
Character Development/Execution: Frey shows us her own heart as she describes the endless patience it took to allow this tiny, terrified canine to reach the stage of trust he needed to surrender himself into her home and her keeping. Told with grace and candor, the journey she and Sheldon take is one well worth accompanying them on.
Blurb: A lovely, gentle, uplifting book written with humor, intelligence and a lot of heart. If you're looking for an author who can translate what dogs do for our souls onto the printed page, this book is for you.
by Debbie Ethell
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.
by Amy Herrig
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.
by Ken Brandt
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.
by Allison Hong Merrill
Idea: An engaging memoir of an immigrant woman in circumstances many readers will find at once unimaginable and familiar: alone and determined. The book explores independence, maturity, faith, and love with a strong voice and narrative structure.
Prose: The book features strong writing. While some typographical errors have slipped through, the writing is tight, consistent, and at times quite eloquent.
Originality: This book tells a story more unique and intriguing than many memoirs that stumble chronologically through a relatively banal life story. Rather than deterring her, the emotional abuse the narrator survives from her young Mormon husband sets her on a course of strengthened faith and self-reflection.
Character/Execution: The memoir is structured well, with a strong hook at the book’s onset before moving the narrative into the past and working back to the opening moment. Supported by strong, well-paced writing, this makes for a very enjoyable read.
by David Pietrusza
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.
by William Spencer
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.
by Diana Estill
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.
by Justin Barker
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.
by Michael Tobin
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 Julie Gray
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.
by Ralph Webster
Idea: A story within a story within a story, The Other Mrs. Samson reconstructs the lives of Ralph Webster’s friend Katie, a postwar German émigré, her husband Josef Samson, a Jewish doctor forced to flee his affluent Berlin home due to Hitler’s rise to power, and Josef’s first wife Hilda, who was raised in an atmosphere of wealth and privilege in turn-of-the-century San Francisco until love made her cross an ocean to start married life with the man she adored. Part history and part mystery, the tale unfolds in a series of different voices as Ralph, Hilda, Josef and Katie tell the tale.
Prose/Style: The book is historically very well-researched and is artfully crafted to withhold crucial plot points from the reader until the moment of revelation is right. The story reads like a mystery, and there are enough plot twists and turns to surprise the reader, who is never entirely able to anticipate where the action will go.
Originality: The Other Mrs. Samson is not a Holocaust memoir of the type that the reader may expect. Some of the mysteries the book sets up – for example, the fate of the painting that disappears en route to New York - are never cleared up, but this, if anything, only serves to enhance the narrative’s realism.
Character Development/Execution: If there is criticism to be made here, it is that the author does not make it sufficiently clear which portions of the text are taken verbatim from the writings of its principal characters – Katie, Hilda, and Josef – and which are his own fictive reconstructions based on such writings. The techniques of the “nonfiction novel” are very much in evidence, but it is left up to the reader to decide how much of this smoothly-unspooling yarn is based on first-person source material.
by Laurie Anne Zaleski
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.
by Toni Pacini
Idea: In Alabama Blue, Toni Pacini recollects her abusive childhood and the violence she endured and survived, as well as the psychological and emotional scarring that led her to make sometimes catastrophic choices as an adult. It also depicts one of the most touching stories of a human being rescued from the depths of an emotional abyss by the pure, uncomplicated adoration of a canine soulmate in recent memory.
Prose/Style: The events in Pacini's story are often horrifying and deeply sad; however, her gaze is unflinching, and she has a knack for crafting idiosyncratic dialogue and the unexpected turn of phrase that can inject a note of wry humor at any moment. She has a story worth telling, and she tells it well.
Originality: Like Mary Karr and several other recent memoirists, Pacini survived a childhood blasted by parental alcoholism and mental illness, as well as horrific sexual abuse by a predatory acquaintance. Her book shows her journey from wounded child to becoming an adult who is able to reflect on her life and take pride in having become a woman who can love, live and forgive.
Character Development/Execution: It took courage to write a book this graphic in its depiction of the ugliness of life under the reign of a desperately sick, mentally ill alcoholic parent. It took still more to depict the missteps a child raised in such a home inevitably makes as an adult, and to take responsibility for them and for her own healing. That the child Pacini describes grew up desperate to be loved is not surprising; that she became a woman able to give love deeply and wholeheartedly is miraculous.
by Kevin M. Callahan
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.