My Reading Life: Sleeper Hits 2021

It’s time, once again, to create my favorite annual book list, my Sleeper Hits of the Year.

What is a Sleeper Hit, you ask?

The entertainment industry uses the term to describe a movie that becomes a sensation despite a small financial investment, little promotion and/or slow opening success.  I use the term to describe a book I expect to be good (or even great) but ends up exceeding all my expectations.  Sleeper Hits aren’t always 5 star books, but they do garner at least a solid 4 star rating and are always a happy surprise when it comes to my personal enjoyment of them.

Last year when I introduced the Sleeper Hits for 2020, I mentioned that my reading experience had been weird, mostly due to the inescapable scourge of COVID. Sadly, that theme continued throughout 2021. I struggled with reading slumps, especially toward the end of the year, and wasted valuable reading time on forgettable escapist reads and overhyped new releases. I wasn’t sure I’d even have enough books to create this list. Discovering I had more than enough possibilities was a delightful surprise.

A few themes emerged as I pulled this list together:

  1. Almost every book on this list has a striking sense of time and/or place, which is probably a reflection of my deep yearning to get back to some serious traveling.
  2. Although it is almost always secondary to the main plots, romance is woven into the storylines of many of these books.
  3. The protagonist’s personal growth or better understanding or acceptance of self is a recurring theme.
  4. Other than the two books focusing on the battle of Troy (which are not at all happy), all the books on this list have a generally positive or hopeful vibe.

It seems I was drawn to books that took me somewhere new or focused on good things like love, character growth or happy endings. For my list, I’ve provided a brief synopsis of each book and my private Goodreads notes with each selection. The Goodreads notes are fragments of thoughts written immediately after finishing each book; good grammar is not a player here. Hopefully, my blurbs will give you some insight into why I loved these books so much.

Sleeper Hits 2021

Tomorrow by Damian Dibben and narrated by George Blagden. Basically the story of a dog looking for his beloved owner, this book spices things up with a dose of immortality and an interesting historical timeframe.

Goodreads note: This was a unexpected and fascinating story that I lingered over. A loyal dog, Tomorrow, is the narrator and it’s his perspective through which the tale is told. Absolutely unique story, striking characters (human and animal), well wrought setting with historical accuracy, excellent writing. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I would highly recommend as long as fast paced action not a reader requirement. It’s a contemplative book about life, mortality and purpose. The narrator for the audiobook is excellent. 4.5 stars.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, narrated by Kristin Atherton and Michael Fox. Briseis, queen of Lyrnesess and enslaved war prize of Achilles, tells the story of the final days of the battle of Troy from a woman’s perspective.

Goodreads note: An interesting retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, queen of Lyrnesess and war prize of Achilles. Raw, brutal and much more vulgar in style than Madeline Miller, but still very compelling. Completely foreign to my experience of the world as a woman but incredibly moving, especially the ending. This is Achilles’s story – make no mistake – but Briseis shares her experiences, which are just as compelling, in parallel to his. Surprisingly, I cried at the end, over Hector’s murdered boy. 5 stars.

Float Plan by Trish Doller. After the suicide death of her fiance, Anna decides to embark on a solo sailing trip that she and her fiance had planned to do together. Float Plan is the story of Anna’s adventures as she sails throughout the Caribbean.

Goodreads note: Absolutely adored this book – sailing the Caribbean, meeting wonderful characters, working through difficult topics with a gentle hand. This is well-written, deals fairly with grief/suicide and has an incredible sense of place. I could picture the places Anna and Keane visited because of my own island experiences and I really enjoyed traveling with them on State of Grace. This is a fantastic summer read for the beach, the pool or any relaxing vacation. Float Plan is a definite sleeper hit for me. 4.5 stars.

Mythos written and narrated by Stephen Fry. A book of clever myth retellings infused with humor and a modern perspective.

Goodreads note: Absolutely loved this book! Stephen Fry brings old myths to life with charm and wit. I could have listened for hours. It is obvious that he has studied and loved these tales. I personally enjoyed comparing the gods and their stories to my God and the Bible; was surprised by some of the similarities (flood, judgement on lack of hospitality, etc.). Will be buying a book for my library AND purchasing the next audiobook, Heroes.

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart. Murder, mayhem and a little bit of romance swirl around the Waring sisters, as they try to relax on the beautiful island of Corfu.

Goodreads note: Mary Stewart is a master of setting and sense of place. I feel like I have personally visited Corfu. She also writes a very solid romantic suspense thriller. I was engaged from the get go, cared about the characters, was interested in the mystery. The dialogue is very British and a bit dated but didn’t really impact my reading enjoyment. Interesting riff off of/connection to The Tempest (which I should read now) and clever dolphin storyline. Perfect low effort, high reward summer read. 4 stars.

Sea People by Christina Thompson, narrated by Susan Lyons. Sea People is a non-fiction investigation of the culture (specifically related to sailing) of the sea-faring peoples of the South Pacific.

Goodreads note: A fascinating book about the settling of Polynesia: the population’s genetic heritage and diaspora, and their navigating prowess. Very scholarly, well researched with solid historical and scientific support. I’m sure my enjoyment was enhanced by my personal experience in Tahiti, Rangiroa, Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine and the Tuamotus. Def not for everyone, but I felt informed and educated. And I found a new type of pottery to admire – Lapita (the first Polynesia people) pottery. 4.25 stars.

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery. Take Cinderella or Jane Eyre, place her in the Canadian woods, tell her story with lovely writing, and you have The Blue Castle.

Goodreads note: Loved, loved, loved this story. Valancy was a delight – such growth despite her ridiculous and horrible family. Loved the nature writing. Loved the characters Valancy befriended. Loved watching the relationship between Valancy and Barney grow. L.M. Montgomery writes so beautifully and wistfully, especially about the natural world. Valancy lovingly built her dust pile and watched it become her real Blue Castle. Yep, I’ll probably be returning to this book again and again. Wonderful reading experience! 5 stars.

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina. Despite family problems, serial killers and New York City burning to the ground, Nora Lopez just wants to turn 18, graduate from high school and maybe fall in love.

Really, really enjoyed this. The claustrophobic feeling of Nora’s life, the tension and craziness in New York City (1977), the 70s nostalgia, and presenting Flushing, Queens as a character. It’s a fast-paced story, easily read in a day or two. Difficult issues are covered, but handled well. Despised Nora’s father for being so neglectful and her mother for pawning off difficult situations on Nora. This was a believable story with interesting characters. Easy reading, engaging YA historical fiction. 4.25 stars.

Recipes for Love and Murder by Sally Andrew. The setting (Klein Karoo in South Africa) and the food obsessed agony aunt protagonist make this fun cozy mystery feel fresh and new.

Goodreads note: So much more than a cozy mystery. Excellent sense of place (Klein Karoo, South Africa) and culture (Afrikaaner/Dutch/native/colored), mouth watering food descriptions, engaging mystery, unusual protagonist (50ish average woman). I felt transported and invested. Loved the agony aunt/foodie columnist mash-up which really set the stage for everything else. Great intro to the Africa location of the Book Voyage reading challenge. Bonus: author lives in location of book setting and writes with authority. 4.25 stars.

A Thousand Ships written and narrated by Natalie Haynes. This book is another interpretation of the end of the battle of Troy, narrated, this time, by Calliope and focusing solely on the women’s experiences during the war.

Goodreads note: Excellent. Would have been even more so IF I hadn’t read several other viewpoints of the story of Troy in the last few years. Appreciated the unique point of view from Calliope as she tells the stories of the women of the 10 year battle through the unnamed poet. Narrated by author, who is excellent! Especially enjoyed Penelope’s letters, which made her seem like a real person instead of a saintly impossibility. Will be taking a break from Troy for a bit, but am still seeking out Greek myth retellings. 5 stars.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. The entire series of 5 novellas and one full length book made this list. I’m not offering a synopsis; my Goodreads notes from a few of the books will get the job done just fine.

My Goodreads notes:

(Book 1) The most unusual sci-fi I’ve read, maybe ever, about a security bot that is part human, part machine. It’s smarter than anyone believes(has overridden its governor), is shy and introverted (hates people to look at it and would rather watch shows than work), is guilt-ridden and filled with doubt and has a soft spot for humans, even though it doesn’t want to because they make it uncomfortable. Thoroughly enjoyed this novella – Murderbot most of all. 4 stars for character development and pure enjoyment.

(Book 2) Enjoyed second installment of this series. Perfect reading for recovering COVID brain – uncomplicated, fun characters and fascinating world, straight forward plot, short. Will probably read third installment today (10/31). Can’t seem to handle much more than Murderbot at the moment.

(Book 3) I think Murderbot is saving my sanity during this COVID ordeal. Fluffy sci-fi novellas that don’t require deep thought but are deeply satisfying. Murderbot somehow manages to get caught in messy human affairs and always manages to save the day. There is action, humor and enough introspection by the cyborg to keep things interesting and emotionally engaging. Novellas are pricey ($10 for 100 pages??), but I’m going to keep reading because I’m all in on low effort entertainment right now. 4 stars.

My reading experience so far in 2022 has been very positive and I’m anticipating many choices for my next Sleeper Hits list. Do you have any Sleeper Hits or favorite books from 2021 to share? I’d love to hear about them!

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