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"When my brother disappeared in 1984, I began to see myself in the third person as if my life were a story being told to someone else."

Abigail Schiller lives a seemingly normal childhood in a rural Catholic commuinity in Wisconsin. But that life is shattered when her younger brother, Sam, vanishes at the age of seventeen, fleeing their father's rigid rules of masculinity and the violence their mother denies. Finally, thirty years old and expecting a child of her own, Abby is ...

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"When my brother disappeared in 1984, I began to see myself in the third person as if my life were a story being told to someone else."

Abigail Schiller lives a seemingly normal childhood in a rural Catholic commuinity in Wisconsin. But that life is shattered when her younger brother, Sam, vanishes at the age of seventeen, fleeing their father's rigid rules of masculinity and the violence their mother denies. Finally, thirty years old and expecting a child of her own, Abby is determined to retrace her lost sibling's dark descent—embarking upon an emotional journey that will test the strength of her spirit, and contradict everything, she once believed about her family and herself.

A stunning work of rare poignance and unsettling power, A. Manette Ansay's Sister marks the literary maturation of a truly exceptional voice in contemporary American fiction. Deftly spinning triumph out of tragedy, the award-winning author of Vinegar Hill offers us a fresh understanding, of family, memory, faith.Abigail Schiller lives in a seemingly normal childhood in a rural Catholic community in Wisconsin. But that life is shattered when her younger brother, Sam, vanishes at the age of seventeen, fleeing their father's rigid rules of masculinity and the violence their mother denies. Finally, thirty years old and expecting a child of her own, Abby is determined to retrace her lost sibling's dark descent—embarking upon an emotional journey that will test the strength of her spirit, and contradict everything she once believed her family and herself.

A stunning work of race poignance and unsettling power, A. Manette Ansay's Sister marks the literary maturation of a truly exceptional voice in contemporary American fiction. Deftly spinning triumph out of tragedy, the award-winning author of Vinegar Hill Offers us a fresh understanding of family, memory, and faith.

In her remarkable second novel, the author of Vinegar Hill tells the story of Abigail Schiller, a girl raised in a rural Catholic community in Wisconsin. Abby's younger brother, unable to survive his father's abuse, succumbs to drugs and violence and leaves town. Haunted by memories of him and unable to find her place in the church or within her family, Abby soon flees, too, with hopes of solving the mystery of her brother's disappearance.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
A soul aches here, and the future seems forlorn. But Sister rises above that with frankness and acuity, and the rhythmic beauty of its prose.
A deeply satisfying story. . .There is beauty, and clarity and much sadness in Sister . . .Ansay writes with grace and assurance. . .You feel the wonder and the terror of these scarred, ineluctably entwined lives.
Howard Frank Mosher
A. Manette Ansay's best work of fiction to date: highly original and entertaining powerful, and told in a racy distinctly American voice.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Intense and deeply affecting, Ansay's second novel after Vinegar Hill and a short-story collection, Read This and Tell Me What it Says is about lossof human relationships, of religious faith and in the value of lifeand about the mysterious process by which affirmation can again be achieved. It is also yet another story of a dysfunctional family, but Ansay explores this territory with restraint, creating a narrative that rings with emotional truth. From the perspective of marriage and prospective motherhood, narrator Abby Schiller reflects back on the years prior to her 17-year-old brother Sam's disappearance in 1984. As children, she and Sam are psychologically maimed by their bullying father, who brutally taunts them and insists that they conform to strictly differentiated gender roles. The manager of a Ford agency in a small rural township in Wisconsin, Gordon Schiller ridicules Sam's artistic interests, calling him a sissy; drives Abby to a nervous breakdown with his carping about purity and a woman's place in the home; and alienates their mother, Therese, who defiantly takes a job to achieve some independence. Sam, his gentle nature eventually corrupted by fear and anger, seeks salvation among druggies and punks who introduce him to violence. Abby is pulled back from the brink of despair by her devoutly Catholic grandmother. Later, however, when Abby breaks away from the Church, she incurs her grandmother's fury. With quiet assurance, Ansay conveys the atmosphere of a warm, tightly knit community permeated by Catholic observance, where belief in traditional marriage and a husband's preeminence gives some women security and others a lifelong sentence of servitude. Abby's difficult road to understanding, acceptance and a state of grace is related with beautiful control, and this heartbreaking novel resonates with wisdom about life's hard truths. July
Library Journal
The sibling bond that stretches beyond life itself is the focus of this beautiful and poignant new novel by the author of Vinegar Hill LJ 8/94. In the first person, Abby reflects on her childhood and her long-lost brother, Sam, while awaiting the birth of her first child. Though her rural Wisconsin upbringing seemed to be fairly typical, as Abby becomes more honest with herself, we see the father's strictness as the abuse it truly was and the mother's faith as neglect. As Abby reflects on how she was able to survive her childhood when Sam was not, many readers will similarly revisit their own pasts. This well-written novel should have broad appeal.Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati Technical Coll. Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
Second-novelist Ansay (Vinegar Hill, 1994) again traces the scars of childhood emotional abuse—here, strikingly rendered, the crippling and even deadly effects of abuse on the lives of Abby and Sam Schiller, the children of a sadistic small-town midwestern car dealer, as they grow toward troubled adulthood in the 1970s and '80s.

The characters are vivid, the reconstruction of events suspenseful and convincing. Abby, the narrator, now 30, married, settled in New York State, and pregnant with her first child, is haunted by the memory of her younger brother's baffling disappearance from their hometown of Horton, Wisconsin, one summer afternoon in 1984, 12 years before; he was never seen again. At an emotional turning point, Abby finds herself reliving Sam's slow deterioration from the sweet, imaginative, charming best buddy of her grade-school years to the defiant, self-destructive dropout who vanished on the heels of a series of town robberies. She traces his troubles primarily to her father's paranoid, unrelenting ridicule of Sam's "sissified" interests—and his jealousy of the boy's attachment to Abby. As familiar as these family dynamics are, the author superbly dramatizes scenes of the father's sarcastic nastiness and the kids' humiliation. The result is chilling and memorable—making the story's mild, unconvincing later developments all the more disappointing. After Sam's disappearance, Abby's father goes berserk and leaves the family; her mother becomes an increasingly devout Catholic; and Abby loses both her religious faith and her interest in a career as a musician. When, at the end, Sam's body is discovered buried in a field near the old family home, answers to all remaining mysteries (how did he die? when and why?) get swallowed up in a sentimental subplot concerning whether or not Abby will baptize the new baby.

A gifted writer who needs to pace herself.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380729760
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/28/1997
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

A. Manette Ansay

A. Manette Ansay is the author of eight books, including Vinegar Hill, Midnight Champagne (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Blue Water. She has received the Pushcart Prize, two Great Lakes Book Awards, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the University of Miami.


A. Manette Ansay's first novel, Vinegar Hill, established the writer as a novelist who could tell a difficult story with great grace. Born in Michigan in 1964 and raised in Port Washington, Wisconsin among a huge Roman Catholic extended family, Ansay infuses her fiction with the reality of Midwestern farm life, the constraints of Roman Catholicism, and the toll the combination can take on women and men alike.

Philosophical and cerebral, with a gift for identifying the telling domestic detail and conveying it in a fresh way, Ansay incorporates the rhythm of rural Midwestern life -- the polka dance at a wedding reception, the bowling alley, community suppers, gossip, passion, and betrayal -- into novels that illuminate the most difficult aspects of maintaining any close relationship, whether it be familial or not. In Vinegar Hill, Ansay examines the forces that hold a Catholic woman in the 1970s hostage to her emotionally abusive marriage. In Midnight Champagne, set at a wedding, she focuses her lens on the institution of marriage itself; the story is told through the shifting points of view of the couples who attend the event.

Readers and critics alike have testified to her talents: The New Yorker said of Vinegar Hill, "This world is lit by the measured beauty of her prose, and the final line is worth the pain it takes to get there." The novel was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1999; Ansay's following book, Midnight Champagne, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Like Flannery O'Connor, whom Ansay cites as an influence, Ansay is concerned with moments of grace in which the truth suddenly manifests itself with life-changing intensity. In the wrong hands, her material could be the stuff of soap operas. But Ansay strives for emotional complexity rather than mere bathos, and addresses both suffering and joy with intelligence and sensitivity.

Ansay's life has been as complex and fascinating as the dramas that unfold in her novels. A gifted pianist as a child, she studied at the University of Wisconsin while still a high school student. Later, while a student at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, she was afflicted by a disease that devastated her neurological system, cutting short her dreams of becoming a concert pianist, and leaving her confined for years to a wheelchair. She had never written fiction before, but turned her disciplined ear and mind to writing, promising herself to write two hours a day, three days a week, the same sort of disciplined schedule she had imposed on herself as a student musician.

Limbo, Ansay's story of her struggle with illness, is as evocatively written as her novels. Ansay never descends into sentimentality, but instead confronts her medical problems – and the limitations they impose – unflinchingly, describing both the indignities that disabled people face daily, as well as how her own illness has become a personal test of faith.

Good To Know

Ansay was still looking for the appropriate title for her first novel when, on the way to a meeting with her MFA advisor near Cornell University, Ansay spotted a street sign with the answer. "I happened to glance up and see a street sign that said "Vinegar Hill." It was perfect," Ansay writes on her web site. "I had never turned onto that street before, and I made a point never to do so afterwards. I wanted it to belong solely to my characters. And it does."

One scene in Midnight Champagne, the air-hockey table encounter, was written for a friend of Ansay's. She writes, "A friend of mine had been musing about sex and literature, and she said, 'Why is it that we so seldom read about the kind of sex we want to be having?' I said, 'What kind of sex is that?' She said, 'Fun sex.' I said, 'I'm writing a scene just for you."'

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    1. Hometown:
      Port Washington, Wisconsin; now lives in New York City
    1. Date of Birth:
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lapeer, Michigan
    1. Education:
      MFA, Cornell University, 1991

Read an Excerpt

If you've never been inside a Catholic church, I'll show you what it's like to go there, believing, into the cool dark air with only the light from the sacristy to guide you. Imagine the half-filled pews stretched out in rows as quiet, as impossibly even, as the rows of corn and soy in the fields behind the houses that trail from the church in four directions, the way light beams radiate from a child's sketch of the sun. Pretend you've just come from one of these houses, as I have, as my grandmother has, as all the people around us have, and at first the measured stillness of the church seems torturous, unbroken, unbearable. But as your eyes widen to accept the dusk, you'll notice a handkerchief twisted from palm to palm, a jiggling foot in an open-toed shoe. And, too, there are smells: rose perfume wafting from beneath a loosened collar, whiffs of manure from rubber-soled boots, dust that (I read this as a child, wanted it to be true) is mostly organic, made up of epidermal cells and bits of human hair. There is dust layering the top of the holy water font, where we dip the tips of our third fingers before making the sign of the cross. There is dust smudging the colors of the stained-glass windows, dust on the legs of the table where we select this month's missalette, dust on the intricate statues with their deep, worried eyes. Everywhere there is evidence of the body's desire for its own beginnings, the soul's helium float back to God.

I want you to be here with us. I want you to feel what I feel, a teenage girl towering over her grandmother at the back of this small Wisconsin church. There is the altar boy in his cumbersome smock, peeking out from the doors off the sacristy,excused from English or Math or Civics to serve the daily noon Mass. There are the men on their lunch breaks, the smattering of older retired men, and so many women!--young mothers with their sleeping babies, older mothers in groups of three and four, and the dozens of widows, women like my grandmother, who are the raw heart of this church. When they speak, you hear the older languages floating around their tongues. They wear their hair in tight, curly nests; thin gold bands still dent their fourth fingers. They carry what they need in big black purses, secured with fist-like clasps, these women who remember times without bread when they had to feed themselves and their families on their own ingenuity and the Word.

The men of my grandfather's generation were like visitors, cherished as guests who could not be relied on to stay for very long. They went off to war and disappeared, they were crushed under heavy farm machinery, they shot each other by accident and on purpose, they fell off horses and rooftops and silos, drowned in rivers, succumbed to snakebite, emphysema, whiskey. After my grandfather died of tetanus in I947, my grandmother raised their four daughters and maintained the farm; when land taxes threatened to rise, it was she who sent the oldest two, Mary and Elise, to work in the cannery. Men died young; you mourned, you kept their graves tenderly, and--somehow--you went on. But when fire broke out, snuffing the lives of those daughters and fifteen other girls into ash, the shock left Oneisha and all the surrounding towns senseless with grief. These girls were the seed of the community, some of them already married and putting down roots like their mothers. A tragedy like this must have happened for a reason, and for some, that reason was all too clear. A girl's place was in the home, not working for cash in an ungodly world where company owners locked fire doors, paranoid about theft. My grandmother was thirty-eight years old. For the rest of her life she would blame herself for my young aunts' deaths. She sold the farm and moved her remaining daughters to town, where she kept them close to her, forever close. By the time I was born, in I965, she was in her fifties, sharp and strong. God-like.

We pause at the back of the church, lingering the way polite guests do before walking toward the area where we always sit, the heels of my grandmother's short boots meeting the floor with absolute certainty. I stay close behind her, feeling every inch of my height, my feet kicking after one another like loosely tossed stones. A place to sit. For some there are choices. One might choose to go all the way to the front, to sit half hidden from the lectern by the bulky old confessionals; one might stay by the new, modern confessionals at the back. There are favorite seats beside the pillars that support the fat, curved belly of the ceiling, with its painting of angels ministering to Mary as she walks in the cherry orchard; there are seats beneath the mounted statues, where a child might sit to admire the delicate toes of the apostles. But we sit in the middle of the church, away from the pillars, the statues, potential distractions, away from the drafts that pulse from beneath the warped frames of the windows, whisper from the long, dark line where the walls meet the floor. My grandmother rubs the knuckles of my hand with her thumb, her peculiar gesture of affection, and I glow with her touch, with the knowing looks of the women around us who observe me at Mass, day after day, and whisper the word vocation. Sometimes I am asked to sing while the other parishioners kneel at the altar, five at a time, to receive Communion. My musical talent, like all good things, is God's gift, and such a gift is both a blessing and a burden. You wonder if you are worthy. You wonder what God might expect in return.

I want you to be here with us. I want you to feel what we feel. This is the tray that holds the hymnal, attached to the back of the next pew. This is the old-fashioned hat clip beside it. That is the altar with its hand-sewn linens, which are laundered by the Ladies of the Altar. Here are the flowers these same women bring with them from their gardens or sunrooms to decorate the church. These are the woven wicker baskets that will be circulated twice during the course of the Mass by old Otto Leibenstein: once to help the missionaries, once to maintain the parish. And some where in the sacristy, trapped in a ring of gold, is the Body of Christ, the miracle that results again and again from the Mass. The Processional is about to begin, and you know exactly what to do, feel the weight of two thousand years behind each simple ritual. You cannot imagine a time when this feeling of absolute purpose will leave you. You cannot imagine losing your faith. You cannot imagine the loneliness.

Copyright ) 1996 by A. Manette Ansay

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Reading Group Guide

About this Guide:
The questions, author biography and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of A. Manette Ansay's SISTER. We hope they will provide you with fresh ways of looking at this affecting and powerful novel of family and memory.

About this Book:
About to become a mother, 30-year-old Abby is compelled to look back at her own roots and try to come to terms with her unhappy, frequently violent family history. As children on a Wisconsin farm, Abby and her brother Sam lived in perpetual fear of their father's harsh mockery and his firm enforcement of the only social code he could accept, according to which the girl's place is in the home and the boy must live up to a rigid, narrow idea of "masculinity." The teenage Abby, offered an alternate world of faith and order, is able to survive; Sam, with no safe haven from his father's bullying, descends into a world of violence and hatred and, at the age of 17, disappears from home. Haunted by guilt, rejecting not only her family's code but their Catholic faith, Abby, too, moves away.

Years later, and in spite of her new, peaceful life, Abby is still unable to put her turbulent emotions to rest. It is not until the secret of Sam's disappearance is uncovered that she finally comes to terms with her parents, her Catholic upbringing and her feelings of responsibility for her brother. SISTER is the poignant story of a woman's search for memory and meaning, the reconciliation of present and past.

Praise for this book:
"Ansay's dramatic rendering of people and events --a form...that finds luminous precedent in the works of Connor or Shirley Jackson--lends apowerful edginess to her prose. In the end, SISTER carves out some new, interesting terrain in a genre one might dub 'Midwestern Gothic.'"--The Boston Sunday Globe

"SISTER takes the breath away like a blow to the stomach.... While Abby's grief is raw even 10 years later, Ansay never lapses into sentimentality. Because Abby dreads as well as aches for Sam, SISTER is more than an elegy--it is a relentless and shattering remembrance."--Time Out New York

"On just about every page of this deeply satisfying story you will find a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph that makes you feel the wonder and the terror of these scarred, ineluctably entwined lives."--Elle

"A soul aches here, and the future seems forlorn. But SISTER rises above that with its frankness and acuity, and the rhythmic beauty of its prose."--The New York Times Book Review

For Discussion:
1. A. Manette Ansay begins her story with a quote from James McConkey: "Memory is, I believe, the human soul." Why has she chosen this particular phrase to characterize her novel? Would you say that this is a novel about memory?

2. In the culture Ansay describes, the male and female worlds are rigidly separated. "It was clear," Abby states, "that growing up meant one thing for Sam and, for me, something else" (p. 58). Why have such different gender models evolved? What functions have they served? How destructive are they to young people?

3. In what ways does the fire at the cannery continue to haunt the family 30 years after it happened? How has the memory of the fire contributed to forming the character and world views of the grandmother, the mother and even Abby herself, who was born years later?

4. Do you find Gordon Schiller to be a villain, or is he instead a pathetic, fearful man? Why is he so terrified that Sam might grow up to be a "sissy?" What aspects of his own character might Gordon be afraid to confront?

5. How does the religious atmosphere of her grandmother's house help to cure Abby from her breakdown? Why does Abby pray for a vocation? Why does she eventually reject her Catholic beliefs? Why do you think Abby's mother becomes increasingly religious after Sam's disappearance?

6. After Gordon leaves for Florida, Therese says, "Maybe your grandmother is right.... Maybe this is all my fault. Maybe I should have stayed home with you kids and kept house and agreed with everything your father said. Maybe that should have been enough" (p. 159). Would it have been, do you think? If his mother had stayed home, might Sam have been saved? Why does Therese's mother and family agree with Gordon that a woman should not work?

7. "I was angry with my father, but even more so with Sam, because he did not fight back" (p. 64), Abby says. How would you explain Sam's behavior with his father: is it passivity? Fear? Do you think that by asserting himself more Sam might have defied his father, or was he in a situation he could not have won? What kind of person might Sam had been without his father's taunts and bullying?

8. On page 96, Abby describes an intense, recurring dream. What is the meaning of this dream within the structure of Abby's life? Abby feels that she saved herself by abandoning her brother. Is there truth in this belief? By acting differently, might Abby have saved both herself and Sam?

9. Why does Abby's father make her smoke cigarettes on her 13th birthday? What sort of challenge is he posing her?

10. How much do you blame Abby's mother for going along with her husband's acts of cruelty toward their children? Is she what people would now call an "enabler?" To what extent, if any, does she protect the children from their father? Does she in fact protect herself at the expense of them? Do you think that any real love existed between the parents during the years Abby describes?

11. Why does Abby give up music and singing? Would you call this a self- destructive act, or an act of self-preservation? Why does her decision to stop studying music occur simultaneously with her realization that she no longer believes in the Church?

12. How do you explain Gordon's transformation from a bully to a man "nearly paralyzed with fear" (p. 175)? Does this transformation make sense to you, in the context of his character as it has been established? What is Gordon afraid of? Has he always been afraid?

13. Phoebe says to Abby, "People believe what they want" (p. 130). Later, Abby decides that people also "want to believe" (p. 189). At the end of the book, Abby's mother defines faith as "the ability to believe. The ability to see beyond the place where you are" (p. 226). Do you agree with the mother's assessment that faith is something Sam fatally lacked? What has faith done for Abby? Do you feel that Abby regains faith at the end of the novel? What, if anything, has her faith to do with religion?

14. A. Manette Ansay depicts the Wisconsin landscape with great care. In what way does the physical world of the novel affect the lives of the characters? How does it reflect what is going on in the characters' emotional world?

15. Do you think that Abby's decision to marry a man without religious beliefs was a deliberate one? Why might she have made this decision? In your opinion, was it the right one?

About the Author:
A. Manette Ansay is a graduate of Cornell University's MFA program. Her acclaimed first novel, Vinegar Hill, won a Friends of American Writers Prize and was cited as one of the Best Books of 1994 by the Chicago Tribune. Her story collection, Read This and Tell Me What It Says, was awarded the Associated Writing Programs Short Fiction Series. She is the 1992 winner of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Prize and a 1993 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in many publications, including The North American Review, Story and The Pushcart Prize XIX: Best of the Small Presses. Ms. Ansay lives with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee, and teaches in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2007

    A One-Time Read

    This book was simply 'OK'. I had high hopes for it after reading 'Midnight Champagne' which I thoroughly loved. I was somewhat disappointed. While I liked the idea, it seemed more like Abby was talking about her brother than herself, and thus: Why title it 'Sister'? It was a good read overall, but I doubt I'll be picking up again anytime soon--if at all.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2002

    Sister or Brother?

    I¿m the sort of person that enjoys to read books about mysteries or love, so this book, Sister, wasn¿t really one that I cared for a lot. It¿s basically about a family where the parents have a ten-year age difference and have some conflicts with their parenting styles. The story is told through the eyes of the daughter, Abigail Schiller. Through out the book Abby tells about her life and all of the struggles she has to deal with. A major part of the book Abby talks about her brother Sam who is changed from an innocent, art loving child, to a delinquent boy, all because of her fathers harsh rules and punishments. As the story progresses it becomes more depressing and difficult to handle, and that¿s why I rated this book a six. Another reason why I gave it a six is because it¿s not a book that I would ever really want to read again because it was so sad. I enjoy happier books that have a sense of closure at the end.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2002

    one of the best books i ever read, and that's about 2,000

    written so that the reader gets the feeling he is THERE, experiencing the very same things.....

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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