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.

Phone Photos: The Fimmvörðuháls Trail

Do you know how difficult it is to describe Iceland without feeling like a slave to hyperbole and superlatives?  Most breath-taking scenery.  Land of starkest contrasts.  Most changeable weather.  Waterfalls beyond number.  After awhile it begins to sound ridiculous, even though I swear I’m speaking truth.

As proof of my dilemma, I offer the Fimmvörðuháls Trail, a hike which begins at the mighty Skogafoss waterfall and ends fifteen hard miles later in Þorsmörk (Thor’s Valley) after traversing between the Eyjafallajökull and Mýradalsjökull glaciers.  I dare you to view the following photos and not  fall into the same description predicament that I’m struggling with…
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I rest my case.  🙂  (And this trail showcases only a small portion of all the visual delights Iceland has to offer).

A few side notes on this post:

  1. Iceland really is a land of the midnight sun.  We were on the trail ten hours and the last few sun-soaked photos of this post were taken around 10 PM.  The sunshine was a gift from God after all the fog and mist of the snow and lava fields.
  2. I didn’t have the chance to photograph any part of the last few miles of the trail which ends at Basar.  We were rushing to catch the last Highland bus back to our car so I wasn’t allowed to dally to take photos.  It was such a shame, really, and our biggest regret of the hike for two reasons: 1) We had already unknowingly missed the bus by 2 hours and 2) the end of the hike was delightfully Shire-esque with mounds of wild flowers and lush green foliage and even more beautiful views around every bend.  Plus, traversing the Cat’s Spine should have been documented for posterity.
  3. I love my Galaxy S9.   The wider angle of view showed Iceland to the best advantage.  The photos I took with it are some of my favorites of our trip.

2018 Summer Mini-Bucket List

 
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I’ve always loved summer, especially when my kiddos were school-aged.  The Fun Fridays, endless pool days, library reading challenges, and impromptu meet-ups with cousins to tour potato chip factories or play in the park filled our days with fun and created wonderful memories.  Now that I’m a parent of two young adults and a teenager who is driving, the structure of the summer months has morphed into something entirely different and it still feels a little weird to me.

High school and college are finished for the year so the kids are technically enjoying a break, although it doesn’t feel like it.  Julia is studying abroad in Italy this month and we only speak to her a few nights a week for a few minutes.  When she returns, she’ll be working and probably spending a lot time with her boyfriend.  Mark is working full time for a landscaper friend of ours during the day and his evenings are dedicated to his girlfriend or to fishing with his brother. And Aaron, who would love to find a job, prefers fishing or watching Netflix with a certain girl with very long hair and glasses to hanging out with his mom.

I’m being left to my own devices this summer and it’s a bittersweet experience.  While I’m sad that the years of corralling and entertaining little people are over, I’m enjoying the experience of watching my children grow into their capable and independent adult selves.  I’m also really looking forward to some me time this summer, which brings me, finally, to the reason for this post.  It’s time for my annual Summer Mini-Bucket List.

This year I’m taking my inspiration from Tsh Oxenrider of The Simple Show, a podcast I occasionally listen to.  The theme for June is Grown-Upping the Summer and Tsh and her co-host Kendra Adachi talk about ways to have a personally enjoyable and productive summer without losing your mind.  In the first podcast of the series, Tsh outlines four categories that provide the framework for her low-key summer goals.  The categories are: 1) Something to learn, 2) Something to enjoy, 3) Something good for me, and 4) Something to finish.  These mesh well with my own summer goal philosophy so I’ve decide to build my mini-bucket list around her framework.  (Note: I have added one additional goal: Some way to serve).

After considering these categories and my own expectations and hopes for the summer, I came up with this list:

2018 Summer Mini-Bucket List

  1. Something to learn:  Learn how to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow on the piano.  I just bought the sheet music for this lovely arrangement and I’d like to take time to learn it well and maybe even memorize it.
  2. Something to enjoy:  Voracious reading for pleasure.  No surprises here, I know, but I have been doing so much hard reading lately for the Challies 2018 Reading Challenge and for work that I need a break.  I am only going to read what thrills me this summer.  Period.
  3. Something good for me.  Walk 10 miles a week.  The goal here is to get outside, indulge in the pleasure of moving my body and reap some health benefits.
  4. Something to finish.  Finish decorating the dining room.  Originally I was going to say “Hem the drapes in the dining room”, but that would only be a partial finish because we still need a carpet and wall sconces and a plant and a photograph framed and hung.  With this in mind, the actual goal includes putting all the finishing touches on the dining room.
  5. Some way to serve:  Prepare and deliver meals for people in need.  I am part of a group at my church that prepares meals and takes them to individuals who have recently had surgery or welcomed a new baby into their family.  Because of my work schedule most of the year, I can only infrequently sign up for a meal.  This summer, every time an opportunity arises, I am going to sign up and make it work with my schedule.

This is a short list, especially compared to some of my previous summer mini-bucket lists, but it feels just right for this time in my life.  It’s eminently doable, totally low stress, and just makes me happy.  It also provides plenty of breathing space for all the other serendipitous and wonderful things this summer might have to offer.  I think I’ll get started right away with a good book and a beverage on the front porch.

Do you make any goals or bucket lists for the summer?  Please share.

 

 

Small Pleasures: January 2018

 

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I’m frittering away a perfectly good Saturday and I’m a little disgusted with myself for doing it.  There are so many productive things I could and should be doing but I keep circling back to the computer and its Internet temptations.  My corner of the office, where the evil tempter is parked, is a black hole I just can’t seem to escape today.  So, I’m not going to fight it anymore.  Because I want to feel a little better about myself and redeem at least part of this day, I’m reviving a favorite blogging practice of reflecting on the little niceties that have sweetened my life lately.  If I complete this activity I can at least say I used some creativity and practiced my writing skills today.

January was mostly dark, bitterly cold, and a little snowy.  I felt like I spent the majority of my waking hours trying to escape the frigid temperatures.  My small pleasures for the month are directly related to staying warm or creating a cozy environment at home.  And they certainly brought (and are still bringing) pleasure and lightness into my life.

January’s Small Pleasures

  • Contigo travel mug.  Before Christmas my trusty plastic travel mug broke.  I loved that mug, mostly because it was a gift from my son, but it didn’t keep my tea hot for very long.  Jay came to my rescue and gave me a new Contigo mug for Christmas to replace my broken one.  It holds about 14 ounces of liquid, is a matte teal green color and keeps my tea steaming hot for hours.  With all this cold weather, I’ve been drinking gallons of hot tea thanks to my cool new mug.
  • Banana Republic coat with faux fur collar.  There are several reasons why this coat made my Small Pleasures list.  1) Its color reminds me of a fir forest at dusk.  2) The collar feels so luxurious.  3) It fits perfectly.  4) I feel so stylish and pulled together when I wear it. 5) It looks good dressed up or down.  For these reasons alone I would have loved this coat.  The fact that I found it at the Banana Republic outlet for 80% off the original price increases my pleasure a thousandfold every single time I button it up.  It’s one of my favorite purchases of the winter.
  • The Winter candle (from Eleventh Candle Co.).  My daughter has a thing for candles so we gifted her a Vellabox subscription for Christmas.  When I placed the order, I also purchased a single month subscription for myself.  Does anyone else do this when they are Christmas shopping?  You know, one for you, one for me?  Anyway, the candle that arrived for me was a soy candle from Eleventh Candle Co. called Winter.  The company’s website describes the scent as “a peaceful, winter blend, filled with the crispness of snow-covered, evergreen trees and the spirited warmth of cinnamon and clove, surrounded by sweet vanilla”.  It is the perfect seasonal scent and I immediately bought two candles of the largest size they sell.  Of note, Eleventh Candle Co. is a business that works globally to help people who are vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation.  The candles are a true win-win in my book; my house smells delicious and my money is going to a very good cause.
  • Slippers.  We keep our house on the chilly side and my feet are always cold.  As a remedy, I asked for a pair of slippers for Christmas.  Jay came through in a big way with a pair of UGG Scuffette II beauties.  They are warm and cushy and feel like little hugs for my feet.  I’ve never considered myself a slipper person but these toasty scuffs have converted me.  I feel very spoiled when I wear them.
  • Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett  and narrated by Katie Schorr (in audiobook format).  This book was a delight to listen to.  The story follows eighteen months in the lives of eleven year old Elvis Babbit and her family after her mother is found dead from an unusual drowning incident.  It’s weird, funny, poignant and hopeful and extremely difficult to summarize in just a few words.  Elvis is the narrator of the story and Katie Schorr does an excellent job portraying her.  I loved spending time with Elvis and quirky her family as they worked through their tumultuous grieving process.  I still think about them often which, for me, is always a sign of a really good book.

We are halfway through the winter here in the northern hemisphere and the groundhog saw his shadow yesterday so there are definitely six more weeks to go.  February is  usually my toughest month, an endless slog of cold and dark.  But, I’m hopeful the small pleasures I’ve mentioned above and the new ones that will undoubtedly pop up in the next month will help to keep my spirits up and my heart grateful for the blessed, abundant life I enjoy.

Do you have any small pleasures you’d like to share?  Please do.