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!

A Little Yule Cheer, Day 22: Small Pleasures, the Second Half of Advent 2021

There are only two more sleeps ’til Christmas! Before things start to get really crazy around here with all the merrymaking and celebrating, I want to take a moment to reflect on the the little things that have enhanced my holly jolly feelings the past two weeks. Life hasn’t been easy the last few weeks, but my heart is full of joy and gratitude for all the blessings I’ve been enjoying this December.

Small Pleasures: The Second Half of Advent

  • Watching Illumination’s Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch with Jay. This version of the Dr. Seuss classic is visually stunning, laugh out funny, and heartwarming. I love everything about it and I think Dr. Seuss would, too.
  • Cookies. Baking them. Eating. Sharing them. It’s all good.
  • The first annual community Luminary Night. The luminarias turned our neighborhood into a magical wonderland.
  • Finding jeans that fit, on the first try. Does this need an explanation?
  • Christmas-themed puzzles. I’m enjoying this so much, I wrote a whole post about it here.
  • Christmas shopping with my 22.5 year old, married son, Mark. I don’t get to spend as much time with Mark as I’d like so when he asked me to go Christmas shopping with him, I was tickled pink. We hit Target, Ulta, and Barnes and Noble and indulged in some Starbuck’s specialties. I had a blast!
  • Hanging out with friends. It’s such a pleasure to catch up with friends while eating good food.
  • This Jingle Bells video by Matt Maher. I dare you not to smile while listening to it.

A Little Yule Cheer, Day 11: Small Pleasures, the First Half of Advent 2021

The past several months have been complicated for me, as I’m sure they have been for almost every human being on the planet. Life is like that. Really good things are mixed in with the rotten. It can be so easy to give into the negative parts and lose track of all the goodness and blessings that come our way every single day. For a long time now, I’ve tried to pay attention to the experiences that bring my heart joy in the midst of living this messy life. Because I’m trying to be intentional about enjoying the Christmas experience this year, my list today focuses mostly on that theme.

Small Pleasures: First Half of December 2021

  • Working through John Piper’s advent devotional An Indestructible Joy with Jay and Aaron. We are finding some of Mr. Piper’s writings to be over the top, which has generated a fair amount of laughter and silliness. With my twenty year old son, I’ll take it where I can get it, even if it means being disrespectful to a beloved theologian.
  • Spending time with Julia at Longwood Gardens’ Christmas displays. We overused the word “magical” to describe our experience.
  • Sipping Starbuck’s hot chocolate and listening to Chris Botti’s Christmas album on the way to work. Talk about feeling mellow. I was so relaxed when I got to campus, I practically melted out of the car.
  • Stumbling across Nora Jones’s live concert at the top of the Empire State Building on Youtube. (I mentioned this yesterday).
  • Learning to crochet. There is something about the focus, the feel of the yarn, and the repetition of stitches that I find soothing. It’s both mindful and mindless at the same time, which seems to be a good combination for me.
  • Watching Christmas movies with Jay. So far we’ve watched Holiday Inn and The Polar Express. White Christmas, A Muppet Christmas Carol and Christmas Vacation are still on the docket along with any other movies that catch our fancy.
  • Seeing Santa riding a fire truck. Every year our local fire department decorates all their trucks and drives through the neighborhood, sounding the sirens and blasting Christmas music. Santa is always waving from one of the rigs, too. The kids (and dogs) in the neighborhood love it and so do I!
  • Pisco-jitos at El Serrano. El Serrano is a wonderful Peruvian restaurant in Lancaster. The mojitos there are made with Peruvian brandy called Pisco. Who knew Pisco makes mojitos the best I’ve ever had.

Now that I’ve started thinking about it, I feel like I could go on and on with small pleasures. No matter how much hard stuff I have to wade through in this life, it doesn’t take me very long to find the good stuff if I make the effort to look. Do you have any small pleasures you’d like to share? Please do!

A Little Yule Cheer, Day 7: Easy Ways to Bring Some Christmas Spirit Into Your December

In the midst of the craziness that is December 2021, it may be difficult to find any excitement or joy in the preparation for Christmas. We can get so caught up in the stresses of life and the busyness of the season that we forget to take time to enjoy the very things that make this time of year so special. Today, I’m offering a list of inexpensive and accessible activities and practices that encourage us to slow down and practice mindfulness, subsequently opening our eyes and our hearts to the magic of this Christmas season.

Listen to Christmas music throughout your day, in whatever style makes you happy. Classical or classic. Vintage or pop. Trans-Siberian Orchestra or Chris Botti. It doesn’t matter as long as it gets you in the Christmas spirit.

Engage in a daily advent meditation or take time to work through an advent calendar. Those few quiet minutes each day will give you an opportunity to reflect on what and why you are celebrating and will help to build anticipation for the arrival of Christmas day.

Watch a favorite Christmas movie/show or two or a Hallmark Christmas romance. At my house, must-see movies include White Christmas, A Muppet Christmas Carol, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Make some handmade decorations for your home or your tree. My kids enjoyed stringing popcorn, but there are so many fun crafts to consider. Make paper chains, cut out snowflakes, bake gingerbread ornaments. It doesn’t have be to time-consuming or expensive, just fun.

Take time to turn on the Christmas tree lights and enjoy the ambiance. December can be such a hectic time of year that we often forget to be still and live in the moment. Sitting beside a twinkling tree in the evening is a wonderful way to unwind. It’s even better if you get to do it with someone(s) you love.

Add a hot beverage to the above experience. The beverage of choice doesn’t matter – hot chocolate, London Fog, spiced cider, mulled wine, whatever – as long as you love it and you savor it.

Make a favorite Christmas recipe. Sharing the finished creation with others bumps this activity up a holiday cheer notch or two.

Take an evening walk and enjoy the neighbors’ Christmas lights. Free and healthy. It’s a win/win.

Light an aromatic candle. Or simmer fragrant fruits and spices on the stove. Scent is a powerful mood booster. Use your favorite Christmas scents to enhance your mood and enjoyment of this most wonderful time of the year.

Work on a Christmas themed puzzle. I realize puzzles aren’t for everyone. If you do enjoy puzzles, though, working on one with a Christmas scene is a relaxing way to focus on the holiday. My husband and I just completed a puzzle with sugar cookies decorated like Christmas sweaters as the theme. It was so much fun!

Read a Christmas novel, a compilation of short stories, or a non-fiction work. Any book with a Christmas focus or setting will do. Pick a genre you like to read and spend some quality time in someone else’s Christmas story.

Or, read some children’s Christmas books. I dare you to remain Scroogy after reading Claude the Dog: A Christmas Story or Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve or Who’s Coming to Our House?

Find a way to help others. Volunteer at a non-profit organization. Purchase toys for under-privileged children. Financially support your favorite charities. Nothing generates Christmas spirit like generously giving your time, talents and treasure to others.

Attend church services Sunday mornings in December. The songs and sermons will keep the focus on the reason we celebrate Christmas. You never know – you may learn something new about the Christmas story that could change your perspective on the holiday or on your life.

Attend a Christmas Eve service. Spending time focusing on the miraculous birth of Christ is the very best way to grow some Christmas spirit. The worship experience is also excellent preparation for the celebration of Christmas Day.

Try one suggestion. Or try them all. I’d love to know if anything worked for you. I’ve only touched on a sample of all the ways to enjoy this holiday season. If you have any other suggestions, please share those in the comments, too.

Small Pleasures: June 2021

 “And since all this loveliness cannot be Heaven, I know in my heart it is June.”

~Abba Woolson

My spring was filled to the brim with fun adventures and big celebrations. Everything was wonderful, but also filled my life with busyness and intense emotions. Life is finally settling back into a dependable groove, which is giving me time to reflect on the inconsequential and trivial things that add an inordinate amount of delight to my life. June was filled with so many blessings that the hard part of composing this post is narrowing the list down to only five pleasures. The abundance of so many good things is a pleasure all its own.

Small Pleasures: June 2021

  • Strawberries. June is strawberry season in Lancaster County and my family indulges daily. We’re perfectly content with fresh berries and whipped cream, but occasionally we went fancier with no regrets. Cottage pudding, strawberry pancakes, strawberry milk shakes and strawberry cake bumped the strawberry eating experience up several notches. Finally, Jay and I finished our June strawberry bender with strawberry basil mojitos at The Hobbit in Ocean City, Maryland for our anniversary.
  • Gardening. For the first time in years, I have a functioning garden with raised beds and pebble pathways. I am so enjoying watching herbs, veggies and flowers grow. We’ve already been enjoy the results of our labors (lettuces, radishes and herbs) and look forward to more delicious veggies on the way. Spending time at the end of the day putzing around our little patch is a surprising joy I didn’t anticipate.
  • Mythos (audiobook), written and narrated by Stephen Fry. This audiobook single-handedly saved my reading life from the doldrums in June. Listening to Fry narrate his charming and witty takes on the Greek myths was an absolute delight. My favorite stories are about Eros and Psyche (C.S. Lewis’s Until We Have Faces is based on this myth), Hephaestus, and Prometheus. I will definitely be listening to Heroes and Troy (the latter just published on 6/29/21) for more myth goodness wrapped in Fry’s humor and insight.
  • FunkyMonkey Slides. These foam slides are cheap, light and very comfy. I’m currently wearing them around the house and out in the garden, but I think they’ll be perfect for the beach, too.
  • Late afternoons at the beach. Speaking of the beach, we spent two afternoons at the Delaware State Beach at Tower Road during our anniversary trip to Rehoboth, Delaware. Four o’clock is the magic hour at the state beach, the time when the crowds disappear and the beach belongs to a few diehard beach lovers. At that time in the afternoon, the sun is mellow and the sand is warm and the midday heat has subsided. The empty ocean heaves and tumbles and the sea gulls dip and coast. There is space to breathe deep and to stretch out. This setting is so soothing and meditative – a better stress reliever then just about anything else I know.

I hope June has sprinkled your life with many little delights, too. If you would like to share some of them, please do in the comments…