My Reading Life: Sleepers Hits of 2019

Last January I set 2 reading goals that I was confident I could reach.  The first was a Goodreads goal to read 60 books in 2019.  I exceeded this goal with ease, topping off at 72 books.  I fell into a pretty nasty reading slump in November and December (which was directly related to my second goal) or I probably could have ticked off a few more books by the end of the year.

My second goal was to complete the Booklist Queen’s (formally the Pingel Sisters’) 2019 Reading Challenge containing 52 reading prompts.  I completed 42 prompts and then realized I was left with several of the harder, less appealing prompts to finish the challenge.  As a hard core mood reader, I found the prompts beginning to feel dictatorial and restrictive and I quickly lost my desire to pick up any book.  Thankfully that dark time has passed; I read four books in 2020 and one of them will probably make my Sleeper Hits list for 2020.  Of the 72 books I read in 2019, ten were true Sleeper Hits for me and I can’t wait to share them here.

So, what is a Sleeper Hit?

The entertainment industry uses the term to describe a movie that becomes a big hit 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.  They garner at least a solid 4 star rating and are always a happy surprise when it comes to my personal enjoyment of them.

I keep track of the books I read on Goodreads.  I don’t write public reviews but I do write a private note about each book I attempt or finish.  Instead of writing formal explanations for my Sleeper Hits in this post, I thought it would be fun to quote my private Goodreads note about each book.  These notes are not intellectual.  They are my gut reactions to what I’ve read and will provide an insight into my initial thoughts and feelings about each book.

Without further delay, Stephany’s Sleeper Hits of 2019…

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.  (Read February 2019, 5 stars). I loved this book!  Beautifully written.  Hefty content with a very light touch.  The characters are so memorable, especially Rueben and Swede but also Dad and Roxanne.  I laughed out loud.  I wanted to sob, too, but I controlled myself because I wasn’t alone.  The Christianity that I live is realistically displayed here and is believable (even the miracles).  And the peek into heaven is exhilarating.  Why did I wait so long to read this book?  I’m sure my thoughts will return to it again and again. 

Anne of Green Gables, written by L. M. Montgomery and narrated by Rachel McAdams.  (Audiobook, February 2019, 5 stars).  I love this book so much!  Matthew and Marilla are so wonderful.  Anne is a pip.  And L. M. Montgomery’s descriptions are sublime.  Such growth!  I’m sure I didn’t love this book as much the first time I read it (when I was younger) but I know I loved it.  Rachel McAdams does a lovely job with the narration, too.  I’m going to read the second book because I can’t help myself.  I wish Rachel narrated that one, too.

My Sister, the Serial Killer, written by Oyinkan Braithwaite and narrated by Adepero Oduye.  (Audiobook, March 2019, 4 stars).  Well, this was an unusual and interesting story and I did enjoy it.  I certainly inhaled it, anyway.  I just don’t know how to review it because my feelings are mixed.  The good: interesting premise – the main character is the older sister of young woman who is also a psychopathic serial killer of boyfriends.  Older sister cleans up the messes related to younger sister’s dirty deeds.  Flashbacks relate sisters’ issues to abusive, sociopathic father.  Younger sister does not change at all throughout story.  Older sister changes for the worse and that’s my struggle.  She gave up so much to be her sister’s “caretaker”! 

The Parfit Knight, written by Stella Riley and narrated by Alex Wyndham.  (Audiobook, April 2019, 4 stars).  A very fun 18th century historical romance/comedy of misunderstandings along the lines of Georgette Heyer.  Loved the narrator (Alex Wyndham), too.  I’m not a romance reader but this book read more like a fairytale, which I love.  Really liked the main romance between Rosalind and Amberly as well as the secondary one between  Phillip and Isabel.  Amberly’s friends are good characters, too.  Isabel’s brother is perfectly evil.  A light, satisfying read – would definitely consider the next book.

Good Morning, Midnight, written by Lily Brooks-Dalton and narrated by John H. Mayer and Hillary Huber.  (Audiobook/read July 2019, 4.5 stars).  Very solid four stars for this soft apocalyptic literary novel.  Beautiful writing.  Characters with interesting headspaces (Augie and Sully).  Stark setting (the Arctic, space).  Not plot-driven by any means, but that didn’t matter to me.  This book is written to be savored and pondered over.  Themes include loneliness, connectedness, purpose, regret.  Not for Sci-Fi readers who want drama or action (the apocalypse is never articulated), for sure, but I enjoyed it immensely.  Audiobook was great, by the way.

Recursion, written by Blake Crouch and narrated by John Lindstrom and Abby Craden.  (Audiobook, August 2019, 5 stars). Wow, wow, wow!  What a thrilling, exhausting, thought provoking mindbender of a read.  I had no idea what I was stepping into.  I liked Dark Matter but this just felt so much deeper, more stressful and better developed.  I loved exploring the concepts of time, memory and self-knowing and how they intersect. With the right creative leadership, this would make some kind of intense thrill ride of a movie.  It has the feel of Inception.  Loved this!

Nine Coaches Waiting written by Mary Stewart and narrated by Ellie Haydon. (Read August 2019, 4 stars).  Four solid stars.  Lovely writing.  Engrossing story/mystery.  Interesting characters with a capable female lead.  I read this in a little over 2 days – unputdownable.  Not high literature but wholly entertaining.  I will definitely read more Mary Stewart.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  (Read September 2019, 5 stars).  Melancholic.  Pervasive sadness.  Implicit evil and related blindness to the immorality.  “A page-turner and a heartbreaker, a tour de force of knotted tension and buried anguish.”  TIME
I have so many feelings about this book.  The dystopian aspect is always an evil, dark undercurrent but the innocence, the growth and the relationships of the main characters are at the forefront.  Much to think about – will stay with me for a long time.

Atomic Habits by written and narrated by James Clear.  (Audiobook, September 2019, 5 stars).  Excellent, succinct, applicable approach to building habits and making positive changes.  I’ve already applied some of the concepts to health changes I want to make and it is working! Listened to this (narrated by author), but also bought the book and will reread.  Highly, highly recommend.

Winter Solstice by Rosamund Pilcher.  (Read December 2019, 4 stars).  Exceptionally charming – setting, characters, story.  Especially loved the Scotland setting and Christmas time frame.  Hope from very difficult situations.  Ultimately a good feeling, warm fuzzy story.  Highly recommend as a palate cleanser or reading slump/book hangover recovery book.

I have a few honorable mentions this year, too.  These books were better than I expected but not to the degree that my mind was blown.  My Sleeper Hit honorable mentions are:

  • The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, narrated by Patrick Lawlor (Audiobook, May 2019, 4.5 stars).  A fascinating deep dive into the Dust Bowl period of American history.
  •  Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore.  (Read September 2019, 4 stars)  Fun, frothy, STEAMY historical romance with surprisingly good writing and solid research into the suffragette movement in England.
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.  (Read November 2019, 4 stars).  Beautiful, philosophical writing focused on the natural world and the intentions of its creator.

Do you have any Sleeper Hits you’d like to share?  Please do in the comments.

 

Small Pleasures: December 2019

(Small Pleasures lists highlight the everyday items, activities and experiences which bring an extravagant amount of happiness to my life.  Writing these lists is a fun practice of mindfulness that encourages gratitude for the abundance of blessing in my life.)

December was the typical blur of holiday preparation and eventual celebration.  Recognizing the small pleasures among the big took more work than usual.  It was worth the effort, though.  The end result captures some of the ways I managed to protect my sanity during the most wonderful time of the year.

Small Pleasures: December 2019

  • Klaus (Netflix original movie).  This beautifully animated movie tells the story of Santa Claus in a fresh, delightful way.  It’s poignant, magical, satisfying.  Watching it with my newly married daughter made the experience even better.  I recommend it, with kids or without.

  • Winter Solstice by Rosamund Pilcher.  This charmer of a book lifted me out of a rotten reading slump and set me down in the middle of a quaint Scottish village during a December snowstorm.  The story had everything I was looking for: engaging characters struggling through difficult circumstances but still open to friendship and love, an evocative setting perfect for Christmas, and a deeply satisfying ending.   Winter Solstice was the perfect book for December and I’ve been recommending it to anyone who will listen.  I’m also looking forward to investigating the rest of Rosamund Pilcher’s catalogue.
  • The fresh scent of a live Christmas tree.  The Fraser fir we bought as our Christmas tree this year filled our house with it’s lovely piney scent for days. That smell is the one I associate most with Christmas and I love it.  (So do the cats, who basically live under the tree for the entire month of December).

  • Watching Perry Mason with Jay.  My husband and I get on these kicks where we focus on an old TV show and watch the available seasons/episodes over the course of several months.  We did this with the original Star Trek series and have recently turned our attention to Perry Mason.  I’m enjoying the show’s plotlines but I’m loving the peek into 1950s/1960s culture and style.  Della Street is my favorite character.  She’s a smart, competent, stylish and independent woman at a time when that was rather uncommon.
  • Felt dryer balls.  In an effort to reduce some of the cleaning chemicals I’m using in my home, I decided to try wool dryer balls in place of fabric softener.  I purchased my set from Food 52 (the cool tones) and am very happy with the softness of my laundry.  What makes the end result even better is the few drops of Mountain Rain fragrance oil (from the Fresh Summer collection by Barnhouse Blue) I add to the balls before I toss them into the dryer.  Now my laundry is soft, smells wonderful and I’m helping the environment and our skin in one very small way.

Add numerous cups of hot tea and an excess of twinkling lights and you have my personal prescription for thriving during the hectic Christmas season of 2019.  Do you have any small pleasures to share?  Please do in the comments!

Creepy Books Perfect for October (Middle Grade Edition)

It’s October!

The month when night comes early, sweaters replace T shirts and Halloween is just around the corner.  It’s the perfect time to snuggle up and indulge in a spooky book or two.  While the horror genre is not my cup of tea, I love a darkly atmospheric story that is creepy without being too graphic. I also enjoy a dash of weirdness and some psychological tension.  A compelling plot, interesting characters and strong writing are all that’s required to complete my idea of the perfect spine-tingling book .

Am I asking too much?   I think not.

The middle grade books in the list below hit that sweet spot of well-written, strong storylines coupled with atmospheric creepiness.  They are also compelling enough to satisfy readers of all ages who want some spookiness in their lives but don’t want to be scared witless by a story.

 

 

Coraline by Neil Gaiman.  First, let me say that Neil is my go-to author for creepiness.  He does it so well!  With Coraline, he takes the experiences of moving to a new home and benign parental neglect and turns them into something very sinister.  While investigating her new flat (located in an old home divided into several apartments), Coraline discovers a portal to another flat just like the one in which she currently lives.  At first, everything in this other flat seems better than her ordinary life, including the parents that reside there.  But something is strange about these parents and they want her to stay with them and be their little girl forever.  It doesn’t take long for things to go south for Coraline.  This book is perfectly creepy and the best way to experience it is by audiobook, which is narrated by Neil Gaimen himself.

 

 

Dorp Dead by Julia Cunningham and illustrated by James Spanfeller.  Several decades ago Mr. Hoin, my fifth grade teacher, read Dorp Dead to my class after lunch each day; I still remember the feelings of dread I experienced as I listened to him.  Dorp Dead is an odd story that falls squarely on the psychologically dark and dreadful side of creepy.  It’s about a grieving ten year old boy who is  placed in an orphanage after his grandmother dies.  He protects himself by hiding his intelligence and withdrawing from the world around him.  His behaviors are misunderstood so he is sent to live with a wealthy ladder maker whose obsessive-compulsive behavior hints at something truly dangerous.  I can’t say anything more without ruining the story but I recommend this book for readers who enjoy heavy foreboding and psychological tension.  It’s a quick read, too, and the illustrations enhance the creepiness.

 

 

The Seer of Shadows by Avi.  Do not be fooled by the middle grade label of this book.  Avi is a masterful storyteller who takes his readers on one hair-raising ride with this tale. It’s an intense and chilling story about a ghost bent on revenge.  Early photography plays an important role in the plot and the author enhances the story with rich historical detail.  The Seer of Shadows is perfect for anyone who loves a good ghost story or an atmospheric Gothic tale.  My kids and I listened to this as a book on tape (that’s how long ago we read it) and I loved it as much as they did.

 

 

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier.  Take two abandoned siblings and send them to work for an eccentric family living in a crumbling manor house in the middle of a dark forest.  Add a witch, a big spooky tree, a strange nighttime visitor, a mystery and a curse.  Glue it all together with fantastic writing and main characters a person can really get behind and the result is the Night Gardener.  Part fairy tale, part mystery, part spooky story – this book has it all.   It is my  personal favorite on the list and I highly recommend it.

 

 

Small Spaces by Catherine Arden.  Small Spaces is the story of Ollie, a girl who has recently lost her mother.  She has also recently found a book that tells of a “smiling man” who can grant your dearest wish, for a price (of course).  On a field trip to a nearby farm, Ollie and her classmates have a frightening encounter which prompts her and two friends to run into the woods near the cornfield where the bus is parked.  When they emerge, they are in an alternate world.  A world that contains “the smiling man”.  As you can guess, bad things happen.  With pumpkins, scarecrows and cornfields sprinkled throughout, the setting of this book is the most Halloweenish of the bunch.  It is also suitably dark and nightmarish for the season.  For those who are in the mood for listening rather than reading, the audiobook, narrated by Renee Dorian, is very well done.

Bonus Recommendation:

 

The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.  At the risk of stating the obvious, October is the perfect month to indulge in some Harry Potter. Dip a toe into a single book or go all out and read the series.  The plot, the world building, the characters – everything, actually – perfectly fit my idea of a creepy, atmospheric and imaginative story.  The scare factor is real and sometimes intense but it’s balanced by believable human drama, meaningful relationships and humor.  If you’ve never read Harry Potter, now is the perfect time to give him a try.  Or, consider revisiting his wizarding world if it’s been awhile since you hung out with The Chosen One.  You won’t be disappointed.

Happy spooky reading!  If you have any suggestions to add to the list, please share in the comments.

Small Pleasures: Summer 2019

Summer is mellowing out and winding down.  Before I give the season a final farewell wave, I want to reflect on some of the small pleasures I’ve enjoyed over the last few months.  Routinely acknowledging the good things in my life exercises my gratitude muscle and helps me mentally end the summer on a happy note.

Small Pleasures: Summer 2019

  • Sitting on the front porch.   My front porch is the perfect place for reading a book or hanging out with my husband.  It’s comfortable and secluded and I whiled away many, many hours there this summer.
  • Orange Creamsicle smoothies.  My extended family enjoyed our biennial trip to the Outer Banks in July.  There is a smoothie shop in Corolla called Island Smoothie that makes the most delicious and refreshing Orange Creamsicle smoothies I have ever tasted.  I stopped by almost every day of our vacation for a hit of brain-freezing goodness.
  • Toy Story 4.  I was surprised by how much I loved this movie.  It is the perfect ending to a beloved Disney/Pixar franchise.
  • The Try Channel.  I am addicted to this YouTube channel highlighting Irish people trying different foods and drinks and providing commentary on their experiences.   Posts are uploaded every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I haven’t missed one all summer.  the combination of fun personalities and hilarious interactions and reactions keeps me (and Jay) coming back.  The Krispy Kreme clip hooked me and I haven’t looked back.  (Fair warning – salty language runs amok in these videos). 
  • Star Trek (the original series). Late last year, Jay and I decided to work our way through all three seasons of Star Trek (79 hour long episodes) on Netflix.  We finished the last show, Turnabout Intruder, this summer.  Bad acting and cheap sets aside, we both gained a real appreciation for the ways this short lived series attempted to addresses issues of the time (the late 1960s) and we developed a better understanding of the impact the show has had on American pop culture.  More importantly, though, spending time with Captain Kirk, Spock and the crew of the Starship Enterprise was a nostalgic stress reliever for me – something I desperately needed this summer.   
  • Audiobooks.  Over the summer semester, I drove an inordinate amount of miles to observe my clinical students.  One of the benefits of all that travel was the opportunity to listen to some excellent audiobooks.  These books turned what could have felt like a boring waste of time into an adventure I looked forward to. My favorite audiobooks from the summer are:
    • Recursion by Blake Crouch (5 stars)
    • Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Dalton-Brooks (4.25 stars)
    • Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (4.5 stars)
    • The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (4 stars)
    • Atomic Habits by James Clear (5 stars)
    • Nine Horses Waiting by Mary Stewart (4 stars)
  • Butterflies, moths and bumble bees.  This summer seemed to be a bumper season for pretty bugs.  I love watching the bumble bees gather pollen and the butterflies fluttering from flower to flower.  It made my heart happy.
  • Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne (available on Amazon). Somehow I missed this historical drama based on the book by Anthony Trollope when it came out in 2016.  The mini-series is very high quality and an absolute joy to watch, especially because I was unfamiliar with the storyline.  I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys movies/mini-series like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Gaskill’s North and South.
  • The Currently Reading podcast. Besides audiobooks, I enjoy listening to a good podcast when I’m driving.  In August, I stumbled across the Currently Reading podcast hosted by Meredith Monday Schwartz and Kaytee Cobb.  The podcast is fairly new (just over a year) and after taking my time over the last several weeks working through their back catalog, I’m almost caught up.  In each episode, these ladies casually talk about the books they’ve read recently (good and bad), they do a deep dive into a bookish topic, and then press favorite books into their listeners hands.  I especially like that they cover many backlist titles and that they have no problem discussing books they didn’t like and why.  Listening to this podcast keeps me excited about reading (not that I need the encouragement) and adds to my TBR (to-be-read) pile with each episode.
  • Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo show.  A very weird, very magical experience. I enjoyed every minute of it and am thankful I had the chance to see it.

To be completely honest, when I first started this list, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come up with enough items to make the post worthwhile reading.  I’ve been so weighed down with the burdens of work, I failed to see all the good things I enjoyed this summer.  Now I can let the summer go with a happy heart and welcome the fall with open arms.  My lovely daughter is getting married in a few weeks so this autumn is starting out with one gigantic celebratory bang.  Bring on the pumpkins, apple cider and fall fairs!

I hope my list inspires you to reminisce on your own summer pleasures.  If you’d like to share some of them in the Comments, I’d love to read about them.

 

My Reading Life: Sleeper Hits of 2018

After reading untold numbers of Best Of and Top 5 (or 10 or 15) Books of 2018 lists in December and January, I feel compelled to add my two cents and compile a unique list of favorites from the past year.  Circe by Madeline Miller, How Then Should We Live by Francis Schaeffer and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman would top my Best of 2018 list if that was how I was gonna roll with this post.  But that’s not the way I’m rolling.  I’m going to go in the Sleeper Hits of 2018 direction, a tradition I started last year that I would like to revisit (even though it’s the middle of February and 2018 is long gone).

What’s a Sleeper Hit?

The term comes from the entertainment industry and describes a movie that becomes a big success despite a small financial investment, little promotion and/or slow opening success.  I’m using the term to describe a book I expect will be good (or even great) but  ends up exceeding all my expectations.  Sleeper hits aren’t always 5 star books.  They usually fall solidly in at least the 4 star category and are always a happy surprise when it comes to my personal enjoyment of them.

Without further delay, I give you my Sleeper Hits of 2018…

Rabbit Cake   Rabbit Cake by Annie Harnett, narrated by Katie Schorr.  There is a special place in my heart for quirky kids trying to figure out the world while navigating difficult circumstances.  Elvis Babbit is on of those kids.  She tells the story of her quirky family’s grieving process after her mother dies in a drowning accident.  This book is funny, sad and pleasantly weird.  The tone reminds me of The Bellweather Rhapsody or the movies Moonrise Kingdom and Little Miss Sunshine.  I listened to this as an audiobook which I’m sure enhanced my enjoyment of it.  Katie Schorr does an excellent job with narration.  You absolutely believe you are listening to a curious and observant twelve year old girl.

Blue Sword  The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.  This YA novel has all the components of a fun fantasy/adventure: interesting characters, a well developed setting, a journey of self discovery and growth through adversity, an epic good versus evil battle, a bit of romance, and, of course, magic.  And, the main character is a heroine.  It’s a quick read and total escapist pleasure.  In the right directorial hands, I think it could be a fantastic movie.

The Sisters Brothers  The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt is a weird and often very funny Western about two hitman brothers, narrated by the contemplative and compassionate brother, Eli Sisters (I loved him!).  There is a dream-like quality to this story that made it feel like an epic but quirky myth or parable.  That alone would be my reading jam but the unusual characters, strong writing and tidy ending (which I really loved here) cinched The Sisters Brothers as a Sleeper Hit.  Plus, that cover art!  One caveat – this is a Western about hitmen.  As you can imagine, there is violence aplenty so consider yourself warned.

When We  When We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen. This book explores grief, faith and relationships in a small town after a fatal car accident involving four cheerleaders.  There are several secrets revolving around the accident that creates a surprisingly compelling storyline.  Although there is tragedy and sadness, the resolutions are uplifting and positive; it’s sappy in the best kind of way.  I also felt that the Christian faith was treated realistically and fairly.  When We Were Worthy won’t win the Pulitzer, but it was a satisfying way to spend my time. 

Norse Mythology  Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman.  Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths are modern, accessible and funny.  I enjoyed them so much!  Allow me a disclaimer here, though.  I had the pleasure of reading Norse Mythology while I was traveling in Iceland last summer which added significantly to my reading pleasure.  There were so many nods to Norse mythology throughout Iceland, i.e., the Bifrost sculpture at Keflavik airport and  Thorsmork (Thor’s Valley).  I don’t know if I would have enjoyed this book half as much if I hadn’t been reading it after long days of adventuring in the land of fire and ice.

Jurassic ParkJurassic Park by Michael Crichton, narrated by Scott Brick. What a great book! I enjoyed it even more than the movie, mostly because I appreciated the more detailed look at chaos theory presented by Ian Malcolm which is only superficially addressed in the movie.  The plot is propulsive; I was compelled to finish as soon as possible to out what happened EVEN THOUGH I ALREADY KNEW THE ENDING from the movie. That is a telling aspect of a great book.  Jurassic Park isn’t high literature but it is a well researched and very enjoyable tale with a just a dash of mind tickling philosophy.

Off the Clock  Off the Clock written and narrated by Laura Vanderkam.  Productivity and time management hold a weird fascination for me, (probably because I’m uber-afflicted with the planning fallacy) so this book caught my eye as soon as it was released.  Instead of being a how-to for managing the minutes of your day, the book focused on making the time you have meaningful.  Laura suggests being off the clock means making worthwhile memories, spending less time doing things that don’t have lasting meaning in our lives, and choosing things that do matter. I especially appreciated the better than nothing (BTN) concept, being a satisfizer rather than a maximizer (hello, perfectionist), and keeping track of how I spend my time to see were I’m wasting it.  I can see myself returning to this book on the regular for a steady reminder to be mindful about the time I have at my disposal.

Lost Book  The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett , narrated by Charles Armstrong.  Take a stuffy English scholar named Arthur Prescott, place him in a medieval town with a famous crumbling cathedral and ancient library and add a delightful supporting cast and a few mysteries related to Arthurian legends.  The result is The Lost Book of the Grail.  While not a page-turning thriller, it is a delightful mystery that focuses on character growth, friendships and Arthurian legends.  It’s also another book with a seriously satisfying ending.  I enjoyed taking my time with it.

Honorable Mentions:

Born Standing Up written and narrated by Steve Martin.  An intimate look at the professional development and personal life of one of America’s favorite comedians.

Blessing Your Grown Children by Debra Evans.  Chock full of wisdom for maintaining strong and supportive relationships with older teen and young adult children that I find myself returning to again and again.

Now I can finally close the book(s) on 2018 with a satisfied conscience.  Happy reading!

Also see Sleeper Hits of 2017

Any Sleeper Hits you’d like to share?  Please do in the comments below.