What’s a sleeper hit?
The term comes from entertainment industry jargon and describes a movie that becomes a big success despite a small financial investment, little promotion and/or slow opening success. I’m borrowing the term to describe a book I expect will be good (or even great) but ends up being much better than I anticipated. Sleeper hits aren’t always 5 star books. However, they all fall solidly in at least the 4 star category and are always a happy surprise when it comes to my personal enjoyment of them.
Of the 64 books I read in 2017, 8 books made it to my Sleeper Hits list. The books are a diverse group, covering a wide variety of genres, topics and geographical locations. It’s important to note I experienced about half the books on the following list in audiobook format. Listening to books read by gifted narrators with accents appropriate to the stories enhanced the reading experience for me and often played a vital role in bumping the books up to Sleeper Hit status.
I loved all these books and am excited to share them today.
Sleeper Hits of 2017
Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia, narrated by Jessica Almasy (audiobook). I would describe this book as quirky, complex, and surprising. I don’t know if this is a YA novel with adult themes or an adult novel with a YA setting and characters. Either way, it works. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You reviewed it on Goodreads and she describes the experience perfectly: This was one of the most fun books I’ve read in a long time. Sharp, witty, and full of flashbacks to the late 1990s–if, like me, you were an adolescent at that time, you’ll be giggling in delight. But lest you think it’s just fluff, there are weightier issues here as ballast, too: a teen struggling with his sexuality, a woman scarred by an abusive teacher who fears she’s become a monster herself, a father devastated by a long-ago tragedy. Oh, and two murders. It races along at a breakneck pace–I finished it in days–and Racculia pulls it all together in a very satisfying way at the end. If you loved The Westing Game as a kid, you’ll love this.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles. After reading several glowing reviews, I expected this book to be fabulous so the fact it landed on my Sleeper Hits list is very telling. This is one of the best books I read all year. The story takes place in Texas during the Reconstruction era and follows the journey of an itinerant news reader in Witchita Falls who has agreed to transport a young German girl, who has been a captive of the Kiowa Indians for several years, back to her extended family in San Antonio. What makes this book unforgettable? Memorable characters who demonstrate growth, a strong sense of time and place, an interesting storyline with layered and complex themes, and beautiful writing. I don’t read westerns, ever, but this book changed that. I would love to see News of the World developed into a movie. If done right it would be visually stunning, action-packed, and emotionally satisfying.
The Boys in the Boat by James Daniel Brown. This is another book I had very high expectations for. And, boy, did it ever deliver. The boys in the boat refer to the University of Washington’s 1936 eight oar rowing crew. The book covers their quest to win the gold medal in Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games. The content centers around the life of Joe Rantz, one of the rowers, and his personal drama as an abandoned child during the Great Depression and as a member of the crew. Filled with compelling characters, interesting historic details and thrilling narrative drive, I found this book to be unputdownable. (Is that a word?). This is a piece of creative non-fiction that reads like the best of kind of novel and is another one of my favorites from 2017.
Brown Girl Dreaming, written and read by Jacqueline Woodson (audiobook). I would not normally pick up this type of book on my own, mainly because I no longer have middle grade kids. But, I do listen to the podcast What Should I Read Next on a regular basis and Brown Girl Dreaming was mentioned several times last year so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s the perfect example of why stepping outside one’s comfort zone is a positive thing. Jacqueline Woodson’s award-winning (National Book Award and Newberry Honor) autobiography is children’s literature of the highest order. It’s written in verse, which makes for an interesting reading/listening experience. The story provides a singular, intimate portrait of a young African American girl’s experience growing up in the South and in New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s. Woodson narrates the audiobook and it is delightful. I can’t recommend it enough.
True Grit by Charles Portis, narrated by Donna Tartt (audiobook). I stumbled across True Grit as a recommendation to readers who enjoyed News of the World. The storyline for True Grit follows a young self-sufficient and gutsy teen girl named Maddie Ross who is seeking justice for the murder of her father. She hires Rooster Cogburn, a US Marshal with “true grit”, to help her track down her father’s murderer in Indian territory. Shenanigans ensue as you would expect. The first person narrative lends itself to audiobook format and Donna Tart (yes, that Donna Tartt) does a fabulous job bringing the inimitable Maddie to life. This is an often laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes violent and ultimately satisfying story. Jay and I listened to this book during our Cleveland road trip and we both enjoyed it immensely.
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, narrated by Bob Neufeld (audiobook). The only Sherlock Holmes book I’ve read is The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I listened to through loyalbooks.com and which made my Sleeper Hits list for 2016. A Study in Scarlet is the first book in the Sherlock Holmes catalog and details how Dr. Watson and Holmes began their partnership. The mystery begins with a murder in an abandoned South London townhome which baffles the London constabulary and intrigues Holmes. There is a very interesting story about the beginnings of Mormonism within the story of the mystery that I found fascinating. I also appreciate the tidy and believable resolution to the mystery. I like Doyle’s writing – it is very accessible and surprisingly descriptive – and Bob Neufeld’s voice is perfect for an aging Dr. Watson. I think I need to read more Sherlock Holmes.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, narrated by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell (audiobook). This is a gut-wrenching piece World War II spy fiction which revolves around the friendship of two young English women. The first half of the book is told by Queenie (code name Verity) through a confession she is writing for her Gestapo captors. The second half of the book is told through the writings of her friend Maddie, an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot who crashed with her in France. The compilation of both accounts provides insight into the girls’ close friendship, highlights some of the roles women played and the sacrifices ordinary citizens made during WWII, and fleshes out the ugliness of war and its impact on the individuals involved. This is an unforgettable story and I find myself returning to it again and again. Be forewarned, though. This isn’t an easy read (or listen). It’s about war, after all, so expect some very difficult passages.
Himself by Jess Kidd, narrated by Aiden Kelly. Himself wasn’t even on my radar when my mom suggested I give it a try at the beach last summer. I suppose this would be labeled a murder mystery but that feels like such a restrictive descriptor. The main character, Mahony, is an orphan who grows up in Dublin to be a charming car thief. He is also gifted with the ability to see ghosts. When he receives an anonymous note suggesting his mother may have been murdered, he decides to go to his birthplace, Mulderrig, to snoop around. There he meets a very eccentric cast of characters, living and dead, who either help or hinder his search for the answer to his mother’s disappearance. Why did this book make my Sleeper Hits list? I loved the lush, lyrical writing – it felt very Irish to me. The characters were unique, likable (for the most part) and often very funny. And the plot was unexpected and absorbing. I enjoy ghost stories and magical realism and I don’t mind a little darkness mixed in with beauty. This book really worked for me.
As you can see, I may be slacking in the blogging arena but my reading life is on fire. I’m looking forward to discovering new Sleeper Hits in 2018.
How about you? Do you have any Sleeper Hits you’d like to share?
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