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 Loyalbooks.com). 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 (Audible.com). 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 is 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.
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…