Book Consumption: The Sleeper Hits of 2017

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

 

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

 

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.

Boys

 

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 piece of creative non-fiction that reads like the best of kind of novel and is another one of my favorites from 2017.

Brown

 

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

 

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.

Scarlet

 

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

 

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

 

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?

You might also like:

Book Consumption: Sleeper Hits or 2016 

 

 

 

 

Small Pleasures: June Edition

I love recognizing and indulging in small pleasures on a regular basis.  They add a sense of happiness and contentment to my life.  Summertime offers an inordinate amount of these delights (ice cream cones from Pine View Dairy, lightning bugs, eating al fresco at every opportunity, etc.) and I’ve been enjoying as many of them as I can.

My favorites of the summer so far:

  1. Strawberry spinach salad.  June is strawberry season around here and I am all about those strawberries.  My favorite way to eat them this year is in this beautiful spinach salad.  I just can’t get enough of the sweet and tangy deliciousness.
  2. Baseball season.  Youth baseball, that is.  This is the last year my youngest son, Aaron, will play in the local youth league so I am trying to soak up as much of the experience as I can.  The weather has been especially accommodating for evening baseball games and Aaron’s team is having a winning year.  It’s an irresistible combination as a spectator/mom.
  3. Listening to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I’ve recently gotten into audiobooks as an enticement to walk regularly or complete nasty chores. For most of June, I’ve listened to The Nightingale, A WWII story that focuses on the experiences of two very different sisters in Nazi occupied France.  The narrator, Polly Stone, does a fantastic job of bringing the characters to life and I’m transported to another, often sad and dark but ultimately hopeful, world.
  4. Summer reading lists.  I love reading articles and blog posts about books and the summer reading lists are jam-packed with great suggestions.  Considering my massive TBR pile, perusing lists of tempting books is rather counter-productive but I can’t seem to help myself.  If you are wondering what book you should take with you to the pool, beach, or your next vacation these sites are good places to start: Modern Mrs. Darcy, The Bookbub Blog, and Popsugar.
  5. The front porch.  My front porch is shaded for most of the day and secluded from the street by burning bush and holly.  It is private and comfy and I have already whiled away many pleasant hours reading a good book, watching a thunderstorm roll in, or relaxing with my husband in the late evening after a long, busy day.

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I hope you are taking time to enjoy the small pleasures of summer and of life.  Please tell me about them in the comments!

Summer Reading List

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One of my Summer Mini-Bucket List items is to read 12 books by the end of August.  My intention is to mix books that satisfy the Popsugar Reading Challenge with a few faith-based books and what I consider lighter, fluffier choices.  I’ve compiled a tentative list of the books I plan to devour in the next few months.  I say tentative because, other than the Popsugar books which I have to read to meet the challenge, I’ll be letting my feelings dictate my selections.  Right now the reading list is pretty fluffy because I just finished  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by  Stephen Covey and am in need of some mindless (but well-executed) entertainment.  That may or may not change as the summer progresses.  In anticipation of my fickle feelings, I’ve added some alternative choices just in case nothing I’ve officially listed is tempting me.

Summer Reading List:

  1. The Girl With All the Gifts by Mike Carey (a book recommended by a stranger, audiobook)
  2. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (a book published in 2016)
  3. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (a book and its prequel – this would be the prequel to Jane Eyre which I already read)
  4. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (a book with a blue cover)
  5. Dune by Frank Herbert (a science fiction novel)
  6. Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart
  7. The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
  8. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
  9. Still Life by Louise Penny
  10. A Dangerous Place by Jaqueline Winspear
  11. The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel
  12. Made to Crave by Lysa Terkeurst

Waiting in the wings (just in case):  The Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan , The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Garielle Zevin, A Man Called Ove by Fredric Backman, Out of the the House of Bread by Preston Yancy, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Eric Larson.

I’m looking forward to settling in with these books and only wish I had time to read them all…

What books are you looking forward to reading this summer?

 

A Little Yule Cheer: Day 18 (Inspiration: December)

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Are your feeling overwhelmed or scroogy yet?  I hope not, but it can happen to the best of us in the midst of endless preparations, activities, and celebrations.  Perhaps you need a time out?  Grab a hot drink, make yourself comfortable and take a few minutes to recharge.  I’ve found some no-pressure links to inspire and recharge your spirit this holiday season.  It’s OK to allow  yourself some down time.  Enjoy!

Inspiration: December

  • Taking cookies to the next level.  SweetAmbs creates the cutest penguin cookies ever!  If you have time, check out her snowglobe cookies, too. ( I just enjoy watching the videos and listening to the music).
  • Food 52 shares even more baking tips than I do.  Rolling dough between pieces of plastic wrap when it is still soft and then chilling it is genius.  I’ll have to give that a try.
  • Snowflake bread.  Beautiful!
  • Slowing down the holiday madness.  Laura Gaskill provides very doable words of wisdom.
  • Ann Voskamp takes the matter even more seriously.  She doesn’t just want to slow Christmas down, she wants to turn it upside down.
  • This advice on decorating for Christmas from The Lazy Genius Collective continues the theme of mindful Christmas preparations.
  • Two holiday weekends are looming on the horizon.  Read this for some suggestions on how to spend the time off.  I see much movie watching, book reading and game playing in my future.
  • Are you feeling a bit crafty?  These paper snowflakes look pretty easy and are very pretty.
  • For book lovers: Check out NPR’s Best Books of 2015.  A very interesting list.  Because I’ve been working so hard to reduce my To Be Read (TBR) pile, I’ve hardly read any of the books mentioned.
  • Check this list out from Live Renewed for “life changing” faith-based reading recommendations.
  • Even though I probably won’t finish Popsugar’s 2015 Reading Challenge ( I still have 9.5 books to go), the 2016 Reading Challenge is posted.  It sounds very tempting.
  • If you love A Christmas Carol as much as I do, you might enjoy seeing the home Charles Dickens lived in while he was establishing his career as a writer.  You can take a tour here at Houzz.
  • My favorite secular Christmas tune…

A Little Yule Cheer: Day 16 (Tips and Tricks for the Best Christmas Cookies Ever)

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Baking is an exacting process.  It’s one of the reasons I choose it as a way to relax.  It sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but it really isn’t.  Because I have to pay attention to what I am doing and follow all the steps in the recipe, I can’t multi-task and I can’t rush through the process.  Baking forces me to slow down and be mindful.  Plus, it is so sensually satisfying.  The taste of creamed butter and sugar, the smell of vanilla and spices, the silky feel of flour, the riot of sanding sugar colors.  The house smells delicious as the cookies bake and then everyone can enjoy the yummy results.

While I was writing this post, I found myself thinking about some of the cookie baking wisdom I’ve acquired over the years.  My unique arsenal of tips and tricks have come from a wide variety of sources.  Some have been handed down from more experienced bakers in my family (i.e., Nana and Mom, etc.) and some grew out of a desperate need to solve a frustrating baking problem.  Other tips developed from happy accidents or were gleaned from baking blogs and articles.  Taken together, these bits of wisdom have significantly decreased the frustration level and increased the fun factor of cookie baking for me.  Since Christmas time is the zenith of cookie baking activity, I thought I’d share some of my best tips and tricks.  Hopefully, you’ll find something to increase you own cookie baking pleasure or efficiency.

Ingredients

  • Use fresh, best quality ingredients like eggs, butter, baking soda, baking powder, etc.  Quality ingredients increases your chances of producing quality cookies.  At least you are building a solid foundation.  I put dates on my baking soda, baking powder and spices so that I can keep track of freshness.
  • Use unsalted butter.  I used to think that the emphasis on unsalted butter was one of those useless pieces of trendy advice.  Not so.  After reading somewhere that salted butter contains a higher concentration of water which causes cookies to spread more when baked, I switched to unsalted butter for my chocolate chip cookie recipe.  TADA! – plump, perfect cookies.  I’m a convert.  Unless otherwise stated, use unsalted butter.

Favorite Tools

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), you can’t bake well if you don’t have the right equipment.  Beyond measuring cups and spoons, spatulas, bowls, a fridge and an oven, there are a few tools that are essential to my success as a cookie baker.

  • Flat cookie sheets without sides.  I’ve tried all kinds of cookie sheets.  Hands down, I get the best results with the flat, sideless variety.  Cookies bake evenly and are so easy to put on and take off the sheets.   (Note: I have no preference for color or surface type because of my next tool.)
  • Parchment paper.  What a miracle worker!  It’s the perfect non-stick surface for any type of cookie (except maybe spritz that need a sticky surface) and can be used on any cookie sheet.  Because of its light color, cookie bottoms don’t brown too much.  And, it can be re-used and makes clean-up a breeze.
  • A variety of scoops.  Drop cookies became infinitely easier to manage when varying sizes of ice cream scoops were introduced.  I bought my scoops from Pampered Chef years ago; I use them all the time because drop cookies are my go-to type of cookie and they are still going strong.  Using scoops increases the efficiency of the cookie baking process and the uniformity of the size of the cookies.  It’s a win-win, really.  I can make the cookies faster and they look better.
  • KitchenAid Mixer. It’s my BFF when I’m baking.  It does the heavy work of creaming the butter and sugars while I combine the dry ingredients and then tirelessly mixes everything together.  I waited a long time to purchase my royal blue powerhouse.  Although my kids missed having two beaters to lick at first, I have never looked back.
  • Large cooling racks.  Cookies need to cool completely before they are stored. They also need to get off the baking sheets so that more cookie dough can fulfill its destiny.   Large cooling racks = more cookies cooling at one time = efficiency.

Best Practices

  • Read the whole recipe before you start and then follow. every. step.  Why?  See below.
  • Measure ingredients exactly.  Although baking seems like magic (and I’d still argue that some magic is involved), it’s really about chemistry.  For the chemistry to do what it’s supposed to do, you need to follow the directions and measure ingredients accurately.  Period.  End of story.  Non-negotiable.
  • Allow butter to soften on the counter.  Yes, it takes time and some planning.  But,  on the counter, butter will soften evenly and to the appropriate temperature  every time.  This is very good for your cookies, so just do it.
  • Bring other ingredients to room temperature, too.  When all the guests at the party are warmed up,  they mingle with ease.  It works the same way with your cookie dough ingredients.  Let them warm up so they have a better chance of getting along.
  • Don’t cream the butter and sugar too long.  When butter is softened correctly, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes of creaming with the sugar should be just about perfect.  If you cream for a shorter time than that, the butter and sugar don’t emulsify properly.  Longer than 3 minutes and too much air is introduced into the dough.  Cookies will then rise extra high as they cook and then deflate when they cool.  Sad, deflated cookies are just… sad.  Do follow the recipe, though.  There may be a very good reason you need to cream the butter and sugar for 7 minutes.
  • When adding dry ingredients, only mix the dough until dry ingredients are completely incorporated, then stop.  Over-beating the dough after the flour has been added can active the gluten in the flour.  Instead of tender cookies that melt in your mouth, you’ll be chewing on hockey pucks.  Also, use the lowest setting on your mixer as you incorporate the dry ingredients for the same reason.  The best policy at this stage in the process is to treat your cookie dough with tender, loving care.
  • Don’t crowd the baking sheet.  Cookies need room to grow.  Make note of the spacing suggested in your recipe and follow it.  If no guidance is offered, 2 inches is usually a pretty safe buffer zone.  If you don’t want your cookies looking like conjoined twins, pay attention to spacing.
  • When making rolled cookies, keep everything as chilled as possible.  Making rolled cookies can quickly turn into a nightmare.  The trick is to keep everything cold so that dough keeps its shape and doesn’t stick to anything.  I divide my dough in half so I always have some dough in the refrigerator chilling while I’m working with the other half.  If you’re like me and don’t have a naturally cool marble surface to work on, keep your counter chilled with a gallon plastic bag full of ice when you aren’t working on it.  It also helps to chill the cookie cut-outs before they go in the oven; they keep their shape better while they bake.  Trust me, chilling reduces the exasperation level exponentially with cut-out cookies.

I’m going to wrap up this long-winded piece of advice now.  I’m always looking for ways to improving my baking skills.  Do you have any suggestions you’d like to add?  Gingerbread and spritz cookies still make me want to curse and pull my hair out in clumps so advice related to those cookies would be especially appreciated.  Happy baking!