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: August 2017

August was a month of changes for my family and me.  My youngest son, my baby, turned sixteen.  Sixteen!  He has his permit and now my husband and I can look forward to six months of being scared witless every time we get in a vehicle with him because he will be behind the wheel, learning how to drive.  In August we also experienced the bittersweet and disorienting upheaval of sending our two older kids to college for the first time and the subsequent struggle to establish a “new normal”.   The realization that life will never be the same has been sobering.

Needless to say, August was an emotionally complicated couple of weeks for me.  This is why I’m happy to focus on the simple things that added sweetness and lightness to my month.  It feels good and right to acknowledge that no matter what is going on externally or internally in my life there is always something to appreciate and be thankful for.

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August’s Small Pleasures

  • Fresh flower bouquets.  I think the flowers have been breathtaking this summer and the local orchard had spectacular bouquets for sale all month.  Zinnia, hydrangea, black-eyed susan, lisianthus, coxcomb, snapdragons, sunflowers – you name it.  I couldn’t help myself.  I bought a bouquet every time I stopped in the orchard outlet.
  • Definicils mascara (Lancôme).  This is the perfect mascara – no clumping, no flaking, no running.  Even though it is always showing up on make-up “Best Of” lists, I avoided purchasing it because of the price tag.  No more!  My eyelashes have never looked so good.  🙂
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (in audiobook format).  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 so well done.   I can’t recommend it enough.
  • Spending time with my family.  I always enjoy being with my family, but the times we spent together this month seemed more precious because I knew the kids were heading off to school.  I’m thankful my kids still enjoy hanging out with Jay and I and hope the changing circumstances don’t interfere with this too much.
  • Shetland. I’m talking about the series which I discovered on Netflix, not the actual islands.  My husband and I spent several nights watching the atmospheric murder mysteries which take place on the northern islands of  Scotland.  Breathtaking cinematography, moody music, interesting crimes.  What more could a person ask for?  One small warning, though.  Some of the characters have heavy brogues which make understanding what is going on a bit dicey.  We spent a fair amount of time replaying certain scenes to get the gist of the dialogue.  Trust me, though.  It’s worth the effort.
  • Solar eclipse shadows. (See below)                                                                                         We were not in the swath of the United States which experienced a total eclipse of the sun on August 21.  This was somewhat disappointing until we discovered the partial eclipse in the dapple patterns on the patio.  When the sunlight filtered through the leaves of the Zelkova trees in our backyard, the spaces between the leaves acted like pinhole cameras.  These “cameras” created multiple partial eclipses that shimmered over the pavers and furniture.  I took photos but they don’t do the experience justice.  It was magical.

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August has faded away and it’s departure marks the unofficial end of summer.  It makes me sad to say good-bye to my personal happy-go-lucky season, but I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t looking forward to cooler temperatures, brilliant fall colors, harvest fairs, and hot chocolate.  It’s time to look forward to the new season and all the good things that come with it.

Bonus

A fun song…

Small Pleasures: July 2017 Edition

DSC_4373 July was filled to the brim with good things: rest and relaxation, fun celebrations, lush summer landscapes, and local farm stands overflowing with deliciousness.  The downside of all this goodness is it’s been a struggle to edit my Small Pleasures list into something manageable.  So, after much deliberation, here are my top five (plus a bonus) little happinesses of the month.  Enjoy!

July’s Small  Pleasures 

  1. Swimming in the ocean.  From the first time my dad walked me into the breaking waves at Tower Road beach in Dewey, Delaware, I’ve nurtured an undying love for the ocean.  I love it when it’s gentle, perfect for floating on my back with my eyes closed, losing myself in the gentle rocking. I love it, too, when it’s rough and churning with waves that boss me around and deliver tenfold on the promise of boisterous body surfing and boogie boarding.  I even love how refreshed I feel when I mosey back to my beach chair, my skin tingling from the brisk salty water.  I don’t live very close to the ocean so I’m thankful for the time I was able to spend in it during my trip to the Outer Banks at the beginning of July.
  2. Orange Creamsicle smoothies.  In Corolla, North Carolina, there is a little café  that serves up the best remedy for a hot day.  Their Orange Creamsicle smoothie tastes exactly like the namesake popsicle and I indulged almost every day of my vacation.  Yum!
  3. A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman (audiobook narrated by George Newbern).  The story of Ove, a crotchety older guy with a hidden heart of gold, is a delight as an audiobook.  Through George Newbern’s narration, I grew to love Ove and the people who inhabited his world and I looked forward to washing the dishes or taking my walks just so I could spend more time with the whole bunch.  Listening to this book was a very satisfying experience and my thoughts frequently wander back to Ove and his “family”.
  4. Peaches.  Peaches are in season around here and they are delicious.  We’ve been enjoying the sweet, juicy fruit by the basketful and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
  5. Walking at sunset.  July has been a sizzler so Jay and I have started walking later in the evening to get away from the worst of the heat.  The sunsets have been spectacular lately and the stillness of dusk has been soothing and restorative.  It’s become a restful way to close the day.
  6. The Bonus Pick.  This video by Mark Broussard and his daughters.  Evie just cracks me up…

I hope your height-of-summer has been as delightful as mine.  Now it’s time to wave good-bye to July and embrace the mellow last days of the season.

 

Small Pleasures: June 2017 Edition

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Once again, I’m taking a moment to linger over the little joys in life that have enhanced my recent everyday like frosting on a cupcake.   Or, like fresh flowers in a vintage vase…

June’s Small Pleasures

  1. Father Brown mysteries.  My daughter and I were suffering from Phryne Fisher withdrawal so we started trolling Netflix for some kind of substitute.  Enter Father Brown, a cozy mystery series based on the G.K. Chesterton character of the same name.  This series is based in a quaint English village in what looks like the early 1950’s and is filled with interesting characters and entertaining plotlines.  Father Brown, a priest and amateur sleuth played by Mark Williams of Arthur Weasley/Harry Potter fame, solves an inordinate amount of murders in his parish and surrounding environs with dogged determination and a pleasing amount of grace and compassion.  The show is light-hearted in general but offers a surprisingly hefty dose of legitimate, accurate Christian theology.  We’re currently on the 5th (and last season), so I’m open to any other suggestions for our next Netflix marathon.
  2. Berry season.  Strawberries, blueberries, and those elusive and delicate black raspberries.  These delicious gems have been the bright spot in my recent Whole 30 attempt.  I’ve eaten so many strawberries this past month, it’s a wonder I don’t look like one.
  3. Having Fridays off from work.  One of my most favorite perks of my job as a professor is a four day work week with Fridays off during the summer semester.  Three day weekends for 12 weeks straight!  What’s not to love about that, I ask?
  4. Greenglass House by Kate Milford and Far Far Away by Tom McNeal.  In my opinion, summer books should be fun reading.  Give me an interesting plot, quirky characters, a mystery or two and a pinch (or dollop) of the fantastical, and I’m all in.  With this in mind, let me recommend Greenglass House (a middle grade book I listened to) and Far Far Away (a YA book I read). Each provided me with hours of delightful bookish entertainment in June.  I’m not going to say anything about either of the books – you’ll get the most benefit if you go in blind.  Just trust me when I say, “Read them”.  You won’t be disappointed.
  5. When the Night Comes by Dan Auerbach.  The perfect summer-evening-on-the-porch song.  I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of listening to it.

Now it’s your turn.  Any small pleasures you are currently enjoying?  Please share in the comments.

 

 

Summer Mini-Bucket List, 2017 Iteration

Wheat field 2017

Summer officially begins today!  In celebration of the start of the most relaxed and carefree season of my year, I’m once again compiling a mini-bucket list of fun activities to enjoy before the Fall, with all its structure and demands, rolls around again.

Summer Mini-Bucket List, 2017

  1. Try three new-to-me local restaurants.  Top choices include the Belvedere Inn, Gibraltar, and Luca.
  2. Visit an Escape Room with my family before Julia and Mark leave for college.  This looks like so much fun!
  3. Attend a lawn concert at Nissley Vineyards.  A soft summer evening, homegrown wine, good friends, and live music for listening and dancing – a recipe for grown-up fun.
  4. Get to Central Market a few Friday mornings.  A historical treasure and a feast for the senses.
  5. Churn out a new flavor of homemade ice cream.  How about the Cookies and Cream Ice Cream recipe from Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones by Kris Hoogerhyde, Anne Walker, and Dabney Gough?  Yeah, I thought it sounded delicious, too.
  6. Read at least twelve books.  (Just trying to reach my Goodreads Summer Reading Goal of 12 – 20 books).  My summer reading choices swing between light and fluffy and suspenseful and thrilling (i.e, The Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan and  The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware).
  7. Go to a baseball game (the Phillies or Barnstormers).  I do wish the Phils were playing better…
  8. Spend some quality time with my camera.  The flowers alone provide endless  possibilities for reviving my photography skills.
  9. Take an afternoon to bike an area Rail-to-Trail path.  I’d prefer if the trail was a downhill ride both ways.
  10. Volunteer for or support a local non-profit organization.  Clare House, Water Street Mission, and Schreiber Pediatric Center are a few I’m considering.
  11. Camp at a state park.  World’s End State Park on the Loyalsock Creek near Williamsport is looking promising.
  12. Memorize Romans 8:31 -39.  I need some sort of a challenge after all these mostly self-focused, feel good goals. 😉

 

I have very few other plans for the summer, actually.  In a few short days we’ll be heading to Corolla in the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a week of glorious laziness.  Other than that, I plan to hang around here, watching my son play baseball a few evenings a week and spending as much time as possible on my porch and patio.  We’ll be grilling all the time and eating ice cream (homemade or not), buttery corn on the cob, sweet raspberries, and juicy peaches.  My two oldest kiddos are heading to Lebanon Valley in the fall so I want to spend as much time as I can with them before they go.   I’ll also be starting to teach my youngest son how to drive.  His older siblings have broken me in pretty well so I’m not expecting too many “life passing before my eyes” experiences.

If I can accomplish all of this in the next few months, it will be a blessed summer indeed.

What are your plans and/or goals for the summer?  Please share!

Previous Summer mini-bucket lists here and here.