Book Consumption: The Sleeper Hits of 2016

My reading experiences tend to run along four main trajectories:

1) I expect a book to be exceptional and it meets or exceeds my expectations (i.e., All the Light We Cannot See or The Poisonwood Bible).

2) I expect a book to be good (entertaining or informative, etc.) and it generally meets my expectations ( i.e., A Walk in the Woods or Ready Player One)

3) A book doesn’t meet my expectations, whatever those expectations happen to be (i.e., The Awakening or The Art of Fielding).  I rarely continue along this path once I realize I’m on it…

And, perhaps the best of all reading experiences,

4) I expect the book to be good/great and it turns out to be much better than I anticipated.  I call these books my sleeper hits, hence the title and content of this blog post.

Of the 83 books I read in 2016, I found 8 books and one series that surprised me in the best possible way.  These sleepers encompass several genres, are a mixture of old and new releases and just really tickle my fancy.  I can’t help myself – I have to share.

My Sleeper Hits of 2016



The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly.  The premise of the story – an angry, grieving boy finds a portal to a magical kingdom and strange adventures ensue – was enough to draw me in.  Beautiful writing, the unexpected and satisfying growth of the main character, and an insightful look at the complexities of “good versus evil” elevated my reading experience substantially.  Plus, I loved all the fairytale references.  It’s a rather dark and sad, but ultimately redemptive story and reminds me a bit of Neil Gaimen’s books.




The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Audiobook read by Bob Neufeld (free at  I chose the Loyal Books audiobook of The Hound of the Baskervilles to fulfill the murder mystery requirement of the 2016 Popsugar Reading Challenge.  I expected this book to be enjoyable simply because of its classic status.  What I was not expecting was how much I would enjoy the writing and the characters.  The setting is so atmospheric and the mystery has a very spooky, supernatural feel to it.  I will definitely be reading more from Sir Arthur based on my experience with this book.



Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kreuger.  The more I read the more I realize how much I enjoy murder mysteries.  Ordinary Grace is one of my favorites of the year.  What elevated it above expectations is the nuanced sense of time and place, the perspective of the narrator (the younger brother of the victim), and the way faith impacts the thoughts, behaviors and interactions of the characters.  I cared deeply for the main players in the story, especially the narrator and his father. Is it weird to say a murder mystery is beautifully written?  Probably, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway.  Ordinary Grace is a beautifully written murder mystery.  Read it.



The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey.  Audiobook read by Finty Williams (  Apocalyptic scenarios with zombie infestations are not generally my genre of choice but this audiobook was a crowd pleaser for our family trip to the Adirondacks this past summer.  Not only was I surprised at how much I enjoyed the story, the caliber of the writing and the philosophical considerations that undergirded much of the tale caught me completely off guard.  And Melanie, the girl with all the gifts and the main character in the story, is an absolute pleasure to hang out with.  You can read more of my thoughts about the book here.



Joyland by Stephen King.  I think most people, myself included, associate Stephen King with horror.  He does write other stuff and Joyland, which was written for Hard Case Crime, is a great example.  It’s touted as a murder mystery with a bit of a supernatural component, but honestly the scare factor is about 2/10 and played a very minor part in the plot.  What I really loved about Joyland: Devin Jones (the main protagonist), all the interesting supporting characters, the beach and the boardwalk carnival setting, the storyline, and the skillful writing.  I was sad to say goodbye to my Joyland friends.  Full review here.



Attachments by Rainbow Rowell.  Romantic comedy is another genre I tend to skip but I came across Attachments as a BookBub deal and decided to give it a try.  What a delightful story! The format is fun (partially epistolary) and the characters are amusing and engaging.  The romance, which develops very slowly and is an awkward one-sided one for most of the book, isn’t the main focus of the plot.  Instead, Rainbow Rowell spends most of her time on twenty-nine year old Lincoln O’Neill and his difficulties with moving on from a broken heart and growing up.  The characters are the best part of this story – I loved meeting them and experiencing them becoming better humans. I never thought I would be writing “quality” and “fluff” in the same sentence but here goes.  Attachments  is entertainment fluff of the highest quality.  I highly recommend it for a happy, satisfying escape from reality.



Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart.  This book is a fictional account of the real life adventures that propelled Constance Kopp into the position of America’s first female deputy sheriff.  She takes on Henry Kauffman, a silk factory owner, whos runs over her buggy and refuses to pay for damages.   Constance doesn’t back down even though she lives in a time when women are considered fragile and unable to care for themselves.  The eccentric Kopp sisters, the peek into the real gender inequalities of the 1910s, and the suspenseful plot make this a surprisingly gratifying read.  I understand Amy Stewart has a second book out about Constance and her sisters.  I’m curious to see what else they get up to.



Before the Fall by Noah Hawley.  The catalyst that starts this story rolling is a private plane crash that kills all but two of the passengers.  The book uses the mystery of the cause of the crash to investigate the lives of the people who died in it and the survivors who are left to deal with the aftermath.  I enjoyed the slow unraveling of the mystery, the detailed development of the backstories of the people on the plane, the journey of the main character towards self-acceptance and integrity, and the relationship between the main character and the little boy he saves.   Significant character development and growth, solid writing, and the believable resolution of the mystery made this a sleeper hit for me.  See my review here.


cuckoos-calling   the-silkworm  career-of-evil

The Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J. K. Rowlings).  These murder mysteries are reading entertainment of the first order.  They are well crafted, suspenseful stories with a very strong narrative drive. What surprised me the most, though, was how invested I became in the main characters, Cormoran and Robin, and their working relationship. I binged on the whole series of three books last September and can’t wait for the next book to be published.  A bit of good news – the BBC is making a mini-series out of the first three books which will supposedly air in 2017 on HBO.  I can’t wait!

Well, that was a fun walk down memory lane!

Do you have any sleepers you’d like to share?  Tell me about them in the comments…




50/50 Reading Challenge Update: June Movies

June was an uninspired and very unproductive month of movie viewing for me.  I only have two movies to offer for review and neither one generates much enthusiasm.  July is already faring much better, but I’ll wait until the end of the month to share my thoughts on those flicks.  For now, I give you the 50/50 Reading Challenge movies for June.

June Movies 

  • John Carter (2012) starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds.  I must have lived most of my life under a rock because I had never heard of John Carter before I saw this movie.  My cluelessness to the storyline definitely impacted my viewing pleasure.  I spent at least the first half of the movie trying to figure out what the heck was going on and almost all the movie trying to care about it.  A synopsis is simply beyond my capability.  I feel bad about this because I’ve wandered into other sci-fi/action/adventure films with little previous knowledge and enjoyed every minute of it (e.g. Star Wars, Avatar, etc).  I can’t really say why this was such a struggle for me.  There was a ton of action – some of it rather violent.  The animation was superb.  There just wasn’t any real spark or passion of any kind for any reason.  That made the movie fall flat for me.  The two good things that came from this experience were: 1) I spent time with Ace and 2) I’ve developed a curiosity to see if the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs which form the basis for this movie offer anything better than the movie itself. (2.75/5 stars)

  • Men In Black III (2012) starring Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Josh Brolin.  The original intention was to see Snow White and the Huntsman.  On a whim, it was decided by the majority of the family (meaning everyone but me) to see the third installment of the MIB series instead.  It was absolutely what I expected it to be – a funny, entertaining movie filled with time travel and numerous disgusting aliens as well as the added benefit of loose ends tied up in a nice bow at the end.  Josh Brolin does a fine job as a young Agent K and there is an interesting little twist at the end that gives this particular storyline an endearing quality that is missing from the other two movies.  It was a fun, solid offering for the Men In Black franchise.  I did enjoy it, but I probably wouldn’t watch it again. (3.75/5 stars)

Yes, June was a pitiful month.  Even so, I’m right on target to complete 50 movies by the end of the year.  Hopefully I can pick up and maintain the pace of four movies a month again.  The boys and I just saw The Amazing Spiderman today which leaves just three movies for the rest of July.  With no vacations, sports, or work responsibilities to get in the way, that should be pretty managable, don’t you think?

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: April Movies

I’m at a loss as to how five movies showed up on my 50/50 Reading Challenge list for April.  I could have sworn I didn’t have time to watch even one film, let alone five.  It just goes to show how skewed perception can be when compared to reality.  Of the five movies, only two were chosen by me.  The other three were forced upon me for one reason or another which I’ll discuss shortly.  Regardless of how I came to view these mysterious flicks, they still count toward the total.  This means that at the four month mark, I have 19 movies under my belt.  Not bad, if I do say so myself.  (If only books could be conquered so easily.  Sigh….)

  • Johnny English Reborn (2011) – Rowan Atkinson, Rosamund Pike, Gillian Anderson.  For the Whimsey Pie clan, hanging out together often revolves around watching movies.  As you can imagine, with kids aged 15, 13, and 10, we often have to appeal to the lowest common denominator for everyone to be happy.  Most of the time this means lots of action and adventure which suits me just fine.  Sometimes it means brainless, silly comedies that I could happily live my whole life without experiencing.  For the most part, Johnny English Reborn falls into the latter category.  Except for the fact that a few times I actually belly laughed.  And the fact that I like Rowan Atkinson, Rosamund Pike, and Gillian Anderson.  Johhny English Reborn reminded me a lot of Get Smart with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway –  a couple of very embarrassingly funny parts, an unlikely love match between a hot chick and a dorky spy, and a need for the dorky spy to redeem himself.  It wasn’t a total waste of my time, but one go ’round was enough for me, thank you very much.  (3/5 stars)

  • Modern Times (1936) – Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard.  I was required to watch Modern Times for a Modern Culture and the Arts class I’m taking this semester.  The viewing experience wasn’t the greatest because I watched it in sections on YouTube but the movie itself was fascinating.  Of course, I already had the historical information about the film and biographical information about Chaplin which added significant depth and insight to the viewing.  I really enjoyed this.  I found Chaplin’s Little Tramp to be more endearing than funny and the film is filled to the brim with commentary about the culture of the time.  Incredible as it may seem, I didn’t miss the talking.  While I wouldn’t want every movie I watched to be silent, it has intrigued me enough to give some other silent movies a try.  Maybe I should put The Artist on my to-watch list. (4.5/5 stars)

  • Wives and Daughters (1999) – 4 part BBC Mini-series starring Francesca Annis, Michael Gambon, Tom Hollander, Bill Paterson, Rosamund Pike.  After reading the book last month, I was excited to see that Netflix had the movie available for streaming.  Although it is technically a TV mini-series, it requires about six hours of focused attention so it rates as a movie in my book.  My daughter and I watched it over the course of three days.  I love period flicks like this so my opinion may be slightly biased.  I thought it was very well done.  The characters were cast perfectly (except maybe for Tom Hollander in the role of Osborne Hamley) and the script exactly followed the storyline.  I suppose six hours of available time offers the luxury of getting every detail right.  We laughed at the hairstyles, enjoyed the fashions, and relished the story.  A good time was had by all.  Wives and Daughters won’t appeal to everyone, but for those who love the genre it is a very satisfying viewing experience. (4/5 stars).

  • Dial M for Murder (1954) – Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings.  Dial M for Murder was another movie available for streaming through Netflix so Hubby and I watched it late one evening after the kids were tucked in.  The film is based on the idea of the perfect murder which goes terribly wrong, in this instance a husband attempting to get rid of his unfaithful wife.  However, the husband, played by Ray Milland, manages to use the circumstances to set his wife up as the conniving murderer who receives the death penalty.  The movie is interesting, to say the least.  There are copious amounts of talking and very little action except for the attempted murder scene.  Almost the entire movie takes place in the couple’s apartment.  Daydreaming during this movie, even for a second, is simply asking for trouble because you’re likely to miss a vital piece of the puzzle.  If you just want to veg in front of a big screen, Dial M for Murder may not be a good choice.  If you’re looking for some cerebral stimulation with a dose of vintage, this might be the ticket.  And, Grace Kelly – what can I say?  She is the epitome of classic beauty, even as a cheating wife. (4/5 stars)

  • Cowboys and Aliens (2011) – Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde.  This was another Family Movie Night selection (a.k.a. not my choice).  Because it was an action/adventure/sci-fi film, and because Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford were players, I was at least more excited about it than Johnny English Reborn.  Unfortunately, I’m still shaking my head and saying “What?!”  For one thing, it was too violent, and I’m not talking about battling the aliens.  I’m talking about human on human nastiness.  I’m beginning to think excessive violence and Daniel Craig go hand in hand.  Also, the whole futuristic space alien situation in the untamed West of the 1800’s was just plain weird.  Every cliché of both scenarios was addressed: struggling town, wealthy cattle rancher who owns said town, spoiled son who harasses said town, bandits, gold, wise and distrustful Indians, bad guy who becomes the hero, cruel and ugly aliens, mind control, human experimentation and dissection, little space ships and a somewhat camouflaged mother ship, green alien blood, laser guns of all shapes and sizes, etc., etc., etc.  The only redeeming qualities were the actual acting and the relationships that developed between the characters.  Great actors just aren’t enough to counteract this kind of weirdness. (2.5/5 stars)

This month has reinforced a few bits of information for me.

  1. I am not a big fan of slapstick comedy movies.  I’d much rather watch stand-up comedians if I want some good laughs.
  2. I still love period dramas.  They are my tried and true comfort food of the cinema.
  3. I am really enjoying film noir and suspense genres from the 1940’s and 1950’s.  I think I’ve even gotten Mr. Whimsey intrigued.  I just love the glamour of this style of film.
  4. I’m often astonished by what I like (Modern Times) and what I don’t like (Cowboys and Aliens).  Being open to new experiences offers all kinds of interesting surprises.

May is looking very good for watching movies and reading books.  My schedule opens up wide once the semester is over.  I can’t wait!  If you have any suggestions for movies or books, I’m all ears….

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: April Books

April has turned out to be my least successful month so far in the Reading Challenge.  I’m not surprised or the least bit discouraged, though.  Writing some of the last papers of my undergraduate career, compiling two portfolios, and dissecting the data that comprises my capstone research project must be worthy reasons to slack off in the pleasure reading department.  Graduation is looming large and I have a pile of books just waiting for that time when I’m my own person once again. I’m anticipating that I’ll make up lost ground pretty quickly in the next few months.

As April draws to a close, I’m only working on one very interesting and very short paper for an on-line Culture and the Arts class, and the completion of a very long and very involved research study requiring a twenty page paper (which is almost written) and a thirty minute presentation.  The light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to blind me.  I couldn’t be happier!  I also couldn’t be happier with the two books I did manage to finish in the midst of all that other madness this month.

April Books

The Shadow of the Wind

  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  At its core, Shadow if the Wind is an atmospheric coming of age tale about a motherless boy set in Barcelona, Spain after WWII.  When Daniel is eleven years old, his father, a bookshop owner, takes him to a secret library containing rooms full of old and forgotten books.  He is allowed to choose one book to keep and care for.  The book he chooses, or rather the book that chooses him, is called Shadow of the Wind.  The author, Julian Carax, is shrouded in a mystery that consumes Daniel and propels him on a life and death adventure.  The story of Daniel, and consequently of Julian, is wrapped in an excellent depiction of Spain struggling to recover after WWII.  Rich and detailed character development made the reading intriguing and pleasurable.  Just one warning: Shadow of the Wind is rather dark and spooky, addressing heavy subjects like evil, regret, cowardice, and the consequences of beliefs and actions (well-intended or otherwise).  It is an excellent and very satisfying read, but don’t expect too many warm fuzzies. (4.5/5 stars)

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

  • An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor.  A quote from the prologue:

“What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of life on earth.  My life depends on engaging the most ordinary activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them.  My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the spiritual, the body and the soul.  What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”

From this staring point, Miss Taylor proposes that the whole of the natural world is The House of God, or Bethel (from the Hebrew).  Altars exist anywhere in this world where we human beings have met or meet up with God.  To the author, a Yale-trained Episcopal pastor turned world religions professor, God is “the Really Real” or “the More” that we humans are always searching for.  In essence, the altars are places of relationship: with our own bodies and selves, with the natural world, with other human beings, and with God.  These relationships and experiences draw us close to “the Really Real” God of the universe.

Each chapter of the book is dedicated to a single practice that helps us to recognize God in our everyday lives.  Some of the most significant practices to me are Paying Attention (Reverence), Saying No (Sabbath), Being Present To God (Prayer), and Pronouncing Blessings (Benediction), but I could easily devote entire posts to many of the practices in the book.  No practice takes special knowledge, skills or tools.  They just require a focused awareness and a desire to recognize and experience God for who he is.

For anyone the least bit curious about a meaningful spiritual life beyond the four walls of the church, this is a fabulous book with real life applications.  Very wise and sincere counsel is packaged in Ms. Taylor’s engaging and accessible writing style.  I think An Altar in the World might be one of the best books I’ve read this year…   (5/5 stars)

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: March Movies

There is no point in me trying to explain what my life has been like recently.  As much as I would love to do some whining about it, it won’t be helpful to anyone.  I only mention it as a reason why this update is so late, spare, and succinct.  Amidst the madness I’m declining to discuss, March still made a good showing in the movie category, offering an impressive variety of genres (if I do say so myself).  I am still on pace to reach my movie viewing goal with a total of 14 movies under my belt.  Woo Hoo!

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the quick and dirty movie reviews for March.

  • Brigadoon (1954) Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Van Johnson.  Blech!  I love Gene Kelly (American in Paris), musicals (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and dancing (White Christmas).  I wasn’t feeling the love for this film – even after recognizing a few of the songs. The “Scottish” accents and anything-but-period costumes annoyed the heck out of me, too.  (2/5 stars)


  • Shutter Island (2010) Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow.  Not what I expected based on previously viewed trailers.  Instead of horror, a whopping portion of psychological thriller is served with a side of very good acting.  Intense but satisfying.  (I’m very glad I didn’t read the book first.) (4/5 stars)

  • Hugo (2011) Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Baron Cohen.  My sister recommended this and she has a solid eye for movie quality.  Wow!   A beautiful, magical, sad-happy movie.  Favorite parts include the whimsical old movie sets and the clips of old movies.  Definitely not for everyone, though.  Some may call it slow.  I call it atmospheric. (5/5 stars)

  • Dr. Suess’ The Lorax (2012) Danny DeVito, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Betty White.  Highlights: 1) CGI = dazzling to the point of distraction (which is most certainly not a criticism); 2) The Onceler singing “How Bad Can I Be?”  (I didn’t realize this was a musical.); 3) Betty White’s adorable character!  Quote from my ten year old nephew: “I love this movie!”  (4/5 stars)

  • North by Northwest (1959) Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason.  The only part of this movie I didn’t like was the abrupt and cheesy last scene.  Other than that, Alfred Hitchcock created one tight little suspense tale.  I was engaged and just the right amount of uncomfortable for the entire movie.  By the way, Cary Grant is the epitome of handsome sophistication. (4/5 stars)

  • Trollhunter (2010)  foreign film with subtitles, Norwegian.  This movie is a campy mockumentary which sports some stark and breathtaking scenery.  For my family (we all watched it) it was more fun than scary.  That may not be the case, though, for kids who’ve never seen a monster flick before.  Despite the threat of utterly disgusting trolls who can smell Christian blood, Norway is now on my bucket list. (3.5/5 stars)

I’m in my last six weeks of school and up to my eyeballs in my senior research data.  All this means movies (and books) will be simmering on th back burner until I’ve graduated and updates could be even sparser than this one.  Perhaps a regular dose of chaos is just what I need to whittle my writing style down to the most meaningful and barest of essentials.

What about you?  Have you seen any good movies lately?  I’m always looking for interesting suggestions.