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.

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 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

 

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…