PLOT– A collection of visceral, magical, and often horrifying short stories by Amelia Gray.

LIKE– I received Amelia Gray’s short story collection, Gutshot, as part of my Quarterly Company Literary Box. The spring 2017 box was curated by Borne author, Jeff Vandermeer and as part of his picks, Vandermeer included Gray’s collection.

I had never heard of Gray previous to her book arriving in my box, but immediately, I was drawn to the title and cover art. I packed Gutshot to take on my cruise to Alaska, but just a few pages into the first story, I realized that this was too special of a collection to read while on a distracting, family holiday. I stuck to magazines for the vacation. Now, eight months later, I finally found a distraction free afternoon and took the plunge.

Many of her stories are raw and powerful. There are few that elicited the feeling of the title: Gutshot. I felt physically moved and wounded while reading them.

Here are a few of my favorites.

A Contest- a micro-short about people competing to put on the best display of mourning for a person that they love who has died. They are told that the gods will pick the person that has experienced the most grief and that person’s loved one will come back to them. Several people are mentioned and they are all very worthy, including parents grieving over a lost child. The story simply ends with one sentence involving a character who had not been mentioned earlier in the story, a woman who opens her front door to find that her cat has returned. This had me in tears. I’ve lost so many people and pets in my life, but honestly mourning a pet is such a different type of grief.

The Lives of Ghosts – Marcy has recently lost her mother, but discovers that her mom is haunting her in the form of an enormous pimple on Marcy’s face. A pimple that talks and gives advice, including unsolicited motherly advice. This story was so completely unexpected, humorous, and ultimately heartbreaking. I found myself laughing out loud at this irreverent story.

Thank You– A hilarious story about an escalating passive-aggressive exchange of thank you notes. Thank You, as with many of Gray’s stories, increases in outrageousness, creating a fantasy situation. Very funny and relatable. I don’t think there are many women who won’t relate to this frenemy story with manners.

DISLIKE– I can’t claim to like each of Gray’s stories with equal measure; some were so bizarre that I found trouble connecting. Often her stories turned grotesque or incredibly violent, which is not something that bothers me, but I also felt that it didn’t always serve the story, like it was for shock value more than anything.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Gray is a talented writer and the stories in Gutshot are not ones that I can easily compare to another author. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are certainly original. The stories that got me in my gut, I will not soon forget. I look forward to reading more stories by Gray.

Millard Salter’s Last Day



Thank you to Gallery Books for providing me with a copy of Jacob M. Appel’s novel, Millard Salter’s Last Day, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Psychiatrist Millard Salter has decided to kill himself. The love of his life has recently died after an illness and he fears the idea of growing old with the possibility of having a disease or needing assistance. He feels that he has lived enough life and plans to hang himself, while things are still good. With this plan in mind, he spends his last couple of days tying up loose ends. He tries to wrap things up at work and visits with his ex-wife and adult children. He soon learns that leaving might not be as easy as he had anticipated.

LIKE- It took me time to get into the pacing and rhythm of Millard Salter’s Last Day, but as soon as I did (last third of the story,) I felt swept away. Appel has created a complicated protagonist in Salter and I felt the weight of his worries and sorrows. Through his characters, Appel makes a strong argument for the need to have assisted suicide and speaks to the trauma of watching a loved one battle through a terminal disease. Salter helps a loved on with assisted suicide, which is described in detail.

Although Salter is a lauded psychiatrist, his fears and depression create a situation where he justifies ending his life.  I suppose the argument could be made that people should have the freedom to live their lives ( or end their lives) as they see fit, at any stage, but I felt the overriding theme of Millard Salter’s Last Day is that Salter’s life should not end. His judgement is clouded. The worst of it, is none of the other doctor’s at the hospital where he works, even notice that something is wrong. They are too busy trying to get ahead in their careers and dealing with office politics. Salter’s family doesn’t notice either. It’s a sad and unfortunate situation all around, a commentary on how isolated people can feel and how blind we can all be to the suffering of others.

DISLIKEMillard Salter’s Last Day is pitched as a book similar to Frederik Backman’s novel, A Man Called Ove. They deal with similar themes; like Salter, Ove is hell-bent on killing himself and finds the leaving process to be more difficult than anticipated. However, that’s where the similarities end. Backman’s novel has humor and light to breakup the heavy theme. Ove undergoes a huge transformation, where as Salter stays the same. Salter’s weak story arc, my primary issue with the story.

I had compassion for Salter, but I found him to be a difficult character to stay with for an entire novel. I couldn’t read Millard Salter’s Last Day, without reading several other books at the same time. As such, it took me over a month to read, when it should have taken a day or two. As I mentioned previously, it didn’t grab me until the last third, the first two-thirds were sluggish.

RECOMMEND– Probably not. Millard Salter’s Last Day is heavy. Salter is a solid character, but he  doesn’t have a solid story.


A Thousand Rooms



Thank you to NetGalley and author Helen Jones for providing me with a copy of A Thousand Rooms in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Katie has just died and she finds herself at the scene of her death without anyone to greet her or further instructions. When she thinks of something, such as the store where she purchased the snazzy new red heels that she was wearing when a car hit her, she is transported to that place. Katie begins to get the hang of transporting herself and travels to see her family and friends as they deal with her death, but she is still left wondering, if this is all there is?

Katie get an idea to travel to a convalescent hospital to be near another human when they die and she discovers that the afterlife is different for everyone. Katie learns that she can travel to different afterlife realms and soon she is gathering pieces of the puzzle to understand the meaning of her own death.

LIKE– Jones fills A Thousand Rooms with so much creativity that I kept turning the page to see what was coming next. I couldn’t anticipate where Jones was taking her story, which kept it compelling. She weaves folklore and concepts from various religions into the different rooms/realms that Katie visits. I love the idea that the afterlife can be such an individualized experience. One of my favorite small twists is when Katie thinks she is witnessing a death, but it turns out to be a conception. It’s a joyful moment. Also joyful, are the scenes when Katie is reconnecting with her grandfather in their heaven. It’s a wonderful balance after the somber scenes of Katie watching her family on earth grieving.

DISLIKE– Katie felt flat. I could easily go along with her story because it was so unexpected, but I had difficulty both imagining her physically and going along with her emotional journey. When I felt emotion, it was situational, rather than because I was connected to the protagonist. For example, having experienced profound grief, I felt emotions while reading about her parents and friends in grief, but not for the loss of Katie specifically. When Katie connects with Jason, I didn’t feel the emotions. I like the concept of their relationship and how they are kept apart, but I didn’t bond with either character.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. A Thousand Rooms is a quick read and I liked the concept of Jones’ story. My lack of connection to the characters hold me back from fully recommending A Thousand Rooms. 

Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies



Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with an advance copy of Michael Ausiello’s memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In his memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello writes about his thirteen-year relationship with his husband Kit Cowan and Cowan’s death after an eleven-month battle with a rare form of cancer.

LIKE– I finished Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies two nights ago and I’m still feeling shattered. I feel like I might cry while writing this review. I’ve been a fan of Ausiello’s entertainment writing for many years, but I did not know anything about his personal life. Ausiello has written a true love letter to Kit, who died painfully and tragically in his early forties. I related deeply to Ausiello’s emotions as a caregiver and his fears for Kit. I think this is what hit me the hardest. I still feel emotional over my own role as a caregiver for family members who have since passed.

The best aspect of Ausiello’s memoir is his complete openness to share sensitive topics. He clearly loves and adores Kit, but he also doesn’t refrain from sharing Kit’s infidelity or the problems that they faced in their relationship. It’s raw and honest. Ausiello shares intimate moments that made me feel like I knew both him and Kit personally. What’s more, I really liked both of them. Ausiello has a warm way of bringing the reader into his life; a talent that not all memoirist have and that really makes his story a stand-out. This aspect of his writing is probably what left me feeling utterly crushed in the last quarter of the book, which involved Kit’s decline and death.

I love the title; that Kit is the hero in Ausiello’s life. How perfect and touching.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! Do you like memoirs? Do you like love stories? Are you prepared for an emotional rollercoaster? Ausiello has poured his heart out on paper and it’s a very worthy read. Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies is one of the best memoirs that I’ve ever read. It’s just beautiful.

We Are All Shipwrecks



Thank you to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advance copy of Kelly Grey Carlisle’s memoir, We Are All Shipwrecks, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– When Kelly Grey Carlisle was just three weeks old, she was left by her mother in a hotel room dresser drawer. Carlisle’s mother was murdered, her body strangled and dumped in an abandoned lot in Los Angeles. Although it was suspected that her murder was the work of the Hillside Strangler, the case was never solved.

Carlisle was told that her father was unknown and she was taken in by her eccentric grandfather and his much younger wife, Marilyn. Her grandfather could be loving and jovial, but he could also be angry and verbally abusive. When she was young, Carlisle was treated to fancy clothes and meals out, through money earned from her grandfather’s pornography store business. Later in her childhood, money would get tight, as her grandfather decided to pour all available funds into his dream of owning a boat. They ended up living on a boat that was primarily docked in a marina with a group of off-beat and fellow down-on-their-luck neighbors.

Although Carlisle lived with her grandfather and Marilyn. she honors several adults who took an active interest in her childhood and who helped raise her. We Are All Shipwrecks is a memoir of discovering ones roots, while acknowledging the impact of how you were raised.

LIKE– Carlisle’s life is fascinating and heartbreaking. I was most struck by the contradictions and confusions in her life. She sees two very different men in her grandfather; the man who is fun-loving and the man who cuts with his words. She loves Marilyn as if Marilyn was her mother, but is heartbroken to discover Marilyn’s alcoholism. She is curious about the porn business, but later realizes that some of the porn that her grandfather sells involves violence towards women. In particular, there are parallels between strangulation porn and her mother dying by strangulation. Carlisle mentions a guilty feeling of knowing that the porn business funded so much of her childhood, such as private schools and material possessions.

I had a very personal connection to Carlisle’s story. Towards the end of her memoir, she talks about being in her twenties and taking the initiative to research her family. She discovers a relative who mentions that Carlisle’s mom died in a car accident. My father died in a scandalous way and when I was a teenager, I learned that all of my distant relatives on my father’s side thought that he had died in a car accident. It’s a misunderstanding that has caused a huge riff amongst my family. I had chills and a burst of anger when I read this part in Carlisle’s memoir. Although I was raised by my mom, I can also relate to her desperate need to find out information about her family. I went through similar motions as she did, looking up newspaper articles and latching on to whatever information that I could find in our family records. Information is so precious. I was crushed to read that photographs of her mom and grandmother were destroyed when their boat got wrecked in a storm.

Beyond having an incredible story, Carlisle’s descriptive and emotional writing kept me glued to We Are All Shipwrecks. Her life is filled with many unusual characters and situations that are completely unfamiliar to me. I can’t imagine living on a boat. I had no idea that there are places in Los Angeles (my hometown) where there are these floating trailer parks. Carlisle is also only a year older than me, so many aspects of her childhood were familiar.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. Carlisle’s story is unusual and compelling.

RECOMMEND– Yes. I enthusiastically recommend, We Are All Shipwrecks. Carlisle’s story is one that I will not soon forget and I loved her overriding message about it taking a village to raise a child. This is a beautiful tribute to her messy childhood and to the people that she has loved.

Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister



Thank You to She Writes Press for providing me with an advance copy of Teresa Sullivan’s memoir, Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – In her memoir, Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister, Teresa Sullivan recounts growing up with her older sister, Micky, who is blind, non-verbal, and has brain damage. Although her entire family loves Mikey immensely and they do everything possible to make Mikey’s life better, caring for Mikey takes a toll on everyone. Sullivan’s memoir explores the impact of Mikey and how having a special needs sibling shaped her life.

LIKE – I couldn’t put Sullivan’s memoir down and I read it in one sitting. The specifics of Sullivan’s story and her willingness to share her life in a raw, honest manner, made her memoir a page-turner. I just kept reading, because I had to know if Mikey and the rest of her family were going to be okay. It’s an intense and uncertain read.

Although they try their best to keep Mikey at home, an incident occurs where the courts get involved and Mikey is placed into a facility against her families wishes. They visit her at every opportunity, including visits where she is allowed to come home for the weekend, but Mikey’s placement in a facility forever changes Sullivan’s family. A piece is missing without Mikey and they all feel guilt in their inability to protect her, especially when they discover that she is being abused in the system. Sullivan turns to drugs and wild behavior in her teen years, her mother gambles and has an affair, and her father turns to alcohol. The entire family dynamic breaks down. It’s heartbreaking, especially the horrific abuse Mikey suffers.

Mikey and Me made me feel shattered. I finished it last week and couldn’t manage to write the review until today, because I’m still deeply affected and upset by what I read.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The subject matter is tough to read, but Sullivan has written a beautiful tribute to her sister. There is so much love that she has for Mikey.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Mikey and Me is a devastating memoir, but also an important one. Although, as a society we have come a long way in understanding and integrating people with special needs ( especially during the 60’s/70’s where a bulk of Sullivan’s memoir takes place), there is much more than should be done. Sullivan shares not only her experiences with her sister, but she speaks for other families with loved ones who have special needs. She speaks to a need for not only showing compassion and protecting, but to also inclusion for vulnerable members of our society. She also speaks for siblings, who often transition into a caregiving role as their parent’s age and pass away. This is an important memoir.

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death



Thank you to Scribner for providing me with an advance copy of John Bateson’s book, The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– John Bateson explores the career of coroner Ken Holmes, who worked for California’s Marin County Coroner’s Office for over thirty-six years.

LIKE– Death and the business of it is fascinating. My aunt’s first husband was a coroner in Los Angeles County and although I didn’t know him, I heard of stories from his career via my aunt. Those stories are a big reason that I was drawn to The Education of a Coroner.

Bateson explores many of the cases that Holmes worked on during his career, including tough cases to crack and those that remain unsolved. Included are celebrity cases, suicide jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge, and even a case involving a cult. The Education of a Coroner is not gratuitous, but it does include details of death, which can be gory. I know that some readers would not be able to handle the details. They will definitely live in your mind for awhile. Bateson covers all areas of the job, including crime scene protocol, autopsies, trials, and behind the scenes office work. I learned that in many counties, the coroner is an elected position. It should probably worry the general public that in some parts of the country, the coroner is not even required to have any medical experience. With basically zero experience, anyone could be a coroner, even if they shouldn’t be. It’s scary.

Some of the cases were fascinating, especially the way that Holmes worked with the evidence to eventually solve a crime. Truly, no two cases were alike. I appreciate that the book touches on the sensitive subject of how Holmes spoke to the families of the deceased. I can appreciate that the job of a coroner is someone who wears many hats and speaking with loved ones must be among the toughest parts of the job; certainly not something that everyone would be able to handle.

DISLIKE– The pacing was occasionally sluggish, which I attribute to my unequal interested in all of the cases. Perhaps Bateson included too many cases, as not all were equally interesting or impactful. Less could have been more.

RECOMMEND– If your curious about the job of a coroner and if you like reading about various cases, then I highly recommend Bateson’s The Education of a Coroner. It’s not for the squeamish, but if you can stomach it, it’s an important look into a profession that greatly impacts our society.

The Long Run: A Memoir


Thank you to Crown Publishing for providing me with an advanced copy of Catriona Menzies-Pike’s memoir, The Long Run, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – When she was in her early twenties, Catriona Menzies-Pike was dealt a major life-change, when her parents both died in a plane crash. She spent the following decade finishing her education, while dealing with both her profound grief, and the extensive probate process to close her parent’s estate. She had never considered herself very athletic, but when she turned thirty, she decided that she wanted to change her lifestyle and began running. The Long Run chronicles her journey to becoming a marathon runner, including an examination on how running helped her cope with loss and the history of female runners.

LIKE– I’m not a runner. I’ve finished a handful of half-marathons and other athletic events, but I’ve always been more of a slow finisher, mostly walking. I’ve never had the drive to turn myself into a runner. Running is not what drew me to Menzies-Pike’s memoir. Like Menzies-Pike, I also lost my parents at a young age and this is what made me interested in her story.

The Long Run is half a history of running, specifically female runners. I was not expecting her memoir to be so heavy on the history, but I’m glad it was, as it was fascinating. I had recently heard the story of runner Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an official participant. Switzer registered using her first initial, rather than her name, and snuck by in a time when women were not allowed to participate. Famously, a race official tried to physically remove her from the course, but her boyfriend at the time, stepped in and Switzer kept running. The Long Run is filled with stories of other female runners from around the world who helped break down barriers. I may have zero interest in running, but I’m grateful to these women who took risks so that I could have opportunities. It’s amazing to me to think that Switzer’s Boston Marathon run was just ten years before I was born. I feel like I grew up in a world where I could aspire to anything.

Menzies-Pike also writes about the fear that women have, a fear that has been drilled into them, regarding things like running alone or running at night. Until last summer, when I moved to downtown Portland, I’ve never felt unsafe in my environment. Now, I live in a place where I would not walk outside of my building at night without my husband. In the daytime, I even feel nervous. A big part of this, is that we live right next to a pretty park, where unfortunately, bad things have happened. This fear has limited my life. I don’t go to writing events or other things, stuff that I wouldn’t have hesitated to do when we lived in Los Angeles. Fear is powerful and controlling.

DISLIKE– I wish Menzies-Pike had made her memoir more focused on her grieving and transformation. It could have been more introspective. If I was a runner, I think I would have been more interested in the specific details of her major races. As a non-runner, these portions were a little tedious and I found my attention drifting.

RECOMMEND– If you’re a female athlete or interested in the history of marathons, The Long Run would be a great pick.