our book club reads happy books!

Happy 2014! Happy Reading!

Happy New Year Everyone!

It’s that time of year for new beginnings, resolutions, and… “best of 2013” book lists. I added my own list at the end of 2012. But I don’t think I’ll do that this year. Instead I’ll list a couple of authors that I read for the first time this year and really enjoyed.

1. Kate Atkinson. When I started hearing rave reviews for her new novel “Life after Life” I thought I should check her out. I started reading the books in her Jackson Brodie series. (I was under the mistaken impression that “Life After Life” was a part of this series). Atkinson is a great writer and her characters and stories keep you reading. I’ll be reading more by her this year and maybe checking out the BBC series that were adapted from these books if I can find it.

2. For a road trip to Shenandoah National Park I selected Philippa Gregory’s “The White Queen” on audio. I had been seeing a lot of advertisements for the Starz production  of this novel. I got hooked. The audio narrator was excellent and I went on to listen to the next 2 books in the series. It reminded me of a time in my life when I was crazy about historical fiction. I will be listening to more of these – she has lots!

3. Linwood Barclay. I’ve never considered myself a big reader of thrillers (I’m one of the handful of people on the planet that doesn’t read James Patterson), but when a co-worker recommended “Trust Your Eyes” I was happy to “trust my co-worker”. So glad I did! Great stories and characters that you really care about.

I’ll conclude with a book that I happened to read between 12/31/13 and 1/1/14. It turned out to be the perfect New Year’s read. It was “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey.  I admit my motivations for bringing it home were not the best. I had never heard of the book or the author but we got several copies delivered to the library and not enough room for them all on the shelves. The stark but beautiful cover intrigued me, so I brought it home.



This beautiful story of a childless couple, homesteading in the Alaska wilderness in an attempt to escape their grief is entrancing. It is inspired by a Russian folk tale by the same name. I am not a big fan of magic or fantasy in novels, but by the time these are introduced I was completely hooked by the story and couldn’t stop reading. (And is it really magic? You’re never quite sure.)

It turned out to be a perfect New Year’s read. Some inspiration I will take with me:

” We are allowed to do that , are we not , Mabel? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?”


“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.”

This book casts a spell on you with its gorgeous writing, its beautiful setting, and its tale of the joys and sorrows that make us human. It is truly an amazing fairy tale for adults.

As a footnote, I will add that I was so smitten with this author’s name that I googled the pronunciation (its Ay-o-win) and found out this was the name of a character in “Lord of the Rings”. (I told you a don’t like fantasy –  I never read it or watched it!! Does this make me a failure as an English major??)Turns out Eowyn Ivey’s mother named her after this character (http://eowynivey.com/bio/) Did Eowyn  have any other choice but to grow up and write such a fantastical book?


Shenandoah Adventure!


Or… accidental camping trip!

On my way!



I call it an accidental camping trip because when I signed up for it at the last-minute, I pictured cushy hotel rooms, beautiful views (which I would enjoy sitting on a comfy chair with an adult beverage in my hand) and restaurant meals. I was mistaken! (but not too sadly)

Here’s my “cushy room”:


After I got used to the musty smell, I actually kind of loved my room. The wood paneling is made from the original Chestnut trees that used to abound in the Shenandoah forest, but which are now sadly no longer there. (No, an abundance of  wood paneling was not the cause! An Asian chestnut blight was the culprit)

Upon arrival, I headed for my first hike, Mary’s summit:


fri hike

If this trail looks a little steep, do not be fooled – it was actually very steep! And this was just the beginning of the trail. But the trail lunch at the top was delicious and the view  was spectacular.

group fri

(Note spectacular view in background)

On Saturday morning a couple of us got up to watch the sunrise at Big Meadow. It was one of many favorite things I did all weekend. It was beautiful, quiet, and another opportunity for deer watching.


Saturday morning it was breakfast at the campground where my niece and her husband were camping. (Yes, all my delicious restaurant meals turned in to delicious campground meals. Which would have been fine except for the cooking and cleaning up part!)

A rare event that should be captured on digital image when it is observed…

Pat cooking!


Our Saturday morning hike was the Milam Gap trail and this was my favorite hike of the weekend. An easy trail through a beautiful forest. The sights, colors and sounds were beautiful.


pretty trail

We came to a small clearing that had flowering bushes with hundreds of butterflies flitting around. This picture does not come close to conveying how enchanting it was:


Another great thing about this hike: it was the only one our entire group did together – and there was no crying of fighting!

group sat

And now we come to Saturday’s hike. In all fairness to my hiking companions, they did warn me that it was “challenging” and was mostly a rock scramble. But they also told me the panoramic view from the top was awesome. I have no picture of the view from the top because I did not bring my camera, because I needed both hands to cling for dear life to the rocks so I would not tumble to my death off the side of a mountain.

Here is a picture of the trail I found on the internet:


At one point I was sure I was going to get one of my limb stuck in the rocks and I would have to cut it off to free myself like Aron Ralston in “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”. But then I remembered that I didn’t have a dull pocketknife with me. And I was with about 7 other people, most of whom had cell phones. So, I kept crawling to the top. The view was pretty nice, but I had a hard time enjoying it because I was too busy worrying that someone was going to fall off the mountain.

A word about wildlife: we saw deer and butterflies too numerous to count, turkey, vultures, hawks… and bears!

Photographic evidence of bears!

It was a truly great weekend. It was beautiful and  relaxing (Well, the rock scramble, not so much. Being without TV or internet, kind of nice…but I am glad to have it back!) Best of all was getting to spend an extended amount of time with family. Even though they duped me into quasi camping, I’m so glad they did!



Hello Velva Jean!

I just finished the novel “Velva Jean Learns to Fly” by Jennifer Niven. This is the sequel to “Velva Jean Learns to Drive“, which I wrote about in this post.

The second novel picks up right where the first one stopped – Velva Jean is driving her beat up , but beloved,  yellow truck to Nashville, with high hopes of making it to the big time: singing at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

“Velva Jean Learns to Fly” takes Velva Jean on amazing adventures as World War II breaks out and Velva Jean joins what will later become the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) and learns (you guessed it!) how to fly.

As with the first Velva Jean novel, what made this one such an enjoyable read were Velva Jean’s character and spirit.  Velva Jean’s family and friends from the previous novel make appearances and we are introduced to a lot of new characters. Niven has great talent for making all the characters come alive and you really feel like you know them.

Once again, Velva Jean faces heartache and hard times, but her resilient spirit pulls her through. The novel was set during WWII and depicted the struggles of the WASPS to gain respect and recognition as a military entity. This was something I knew little about and  found very interesting. And I found it very disheartening that women in the military face the same lack of respect and threats of violence today.

The end of the novel left me in a slight panic. I immediately did some research and found that there is indeed a third Velva Jean novel entitled “Becoming Clementine” or as one reviewer called it, “Velva Jean Learns to Spy”. See you soon Velva Jean!

Two things I discovered about Jennifer Niven that makes me want to want to be her BFF:

1. In the acknowledgements page she thanks Ryan Bingham: “I created Butch Dawkins before I knew who Ryan Bingham was, but it’s like he walked off the page –  right down to that face, that hair, the tattoos, those songs, and the whiskey-and cigarettes voice. Mercy.” I, too, am a fan. I discovered Ryan Bingham watching the movie “Crazy Heart“, or I should say, listening to  the closing credits to “Crazy Heart”. Bingham sings the title song he wrote for the movie, which for some crazy reason Colin Farrell sings in the movie. When I heard Bingham sing it, it was like hearing a completely different (and much better) song. As I listened, I pictured a man about the age of Jeff Bridges matching that incredible voice. Imagine my surprise when I found out this is what Ryan Bingham actually looks like:

It added to my enjoyment of the character of Butch Dawkins to picture him like this!

2. In one of her blog posts, “Traveling Light when you love books”, Jennifer talks about traveling to England and filling her suitcase full of great English authors. How ironic, since I found Jennifer Niven’s novels while searching for books set in Nashville to take with me to Nashville! (and it was fun to read about the city after recently visiting – the War Memorial, Church St, Printer’s Alley – I remembered them all.) In this case, looking for books to travel with led me to a great new author who I may never have discovered otherwise.


The Travelling Blues

A couple of years ago, a co-worker was looking for a book to take on a vacation to Chicago. I immediately suggested “The Time Traveller’s Wife”  by Audrey Niffennegger. I know if I ever visit Chicago, this is the book I will be re-reading . And I will definitely be visiting the Newberry Library, where Henry worked and  first met Clare (although she met him for the first time when she was six!). I may even use it as a travel guide, and visit some of Henry and Clare’s other favorite places.

Since then, the idea of reading a book that takes place in the city of my travel destination has intrigued me. However, I haven’t been too successful in implementing this plan for two reasons: I don’t travel very often and I always forget to pick out a book before I leave!

While preparing for my recent trip to Nashville, I thought this would be my chance – I would pick out a novel with a Nashville setting. I did a little research, but found a lot of detective stories I wasn’t interested in. Then I found a book called “Velva Jean Learns to Fly” by Jennifer Niven. It sounded good, about a young girl trying to make it in Nashville. But then I did a little more research and realized that it was a sequel to another novel, which was not set in Nashville. And I didn’t have time to read the first novel before leaving on the trip – foiled again! (And no, I do not have the capability to read the second book in a series first!)

But the books still sounded good to me, so I recently read the first book, “Velva Jean Learns to Drive”. I quickly discovered that this would have been the perfect book to take with me to Nashville. Though not set in Nashville, the Music City plays a very large role in this novel. And it would have answered the  question I posted in this blog post about who was the first person to think those colorful and sparkly costumes at the Country Music Hall of Fame were a good idea. I think the answer is probably someone who had been a little girl like Velva Jean, growing up in Appalachia, barefoot and wearing a patched and faded dress. A girl whose dream was to “be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry, with an outfit made of satin and rhinestones and a pair of high-heeled boots.”

“Velva Jean Learns to Drive” chronicles the challenges Velva Jean faces in the pursuit of her Nashville dream, from the ages of 10 through 18. The novel is set in the mountains of North Carolina in the late 30’s, during the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Which I had just read a little bit about while reading “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson). I thought this was a very good story with   fully developed  characters – no one was either all good or all bad. Just like life. And I liked Velva Jean and had faith in her. Even when the choices she made seemed wrong, I knew she would eventually get on the right road.

My favorite quote was this description of the feelings evoked when Velva Jean hears, for the first time, someone  playing the blues:

“I’d never heard music like that before. It was raw and angry and sweet all at once.  It made me think of a thunderstorm and lightning and the way I felt after a good cry. It made me think of bad women who lived in cities – women who rouged their bosoms –  of hobo jungles, of riding the rails. It made me think of mean corn liquor that didn’t leave a hangover. It made me think of running from a panther, of blood streaming down my leg, of a train wreck in the dark, dark night. I saw Danny Deal’s body lying cold under a blanket. I saw his bright yellow truck and me behind the wheel.”

I think that’s a pretty good description of the power music (or any art) has to move people. Incidently,  that quote it pretty much a synopsis of the book!

I also enjoyed the sweet relationship between Velva Jean and her brother, Johnny Clay, one that you don’t see often in novels (or at least I don’t).

Like “Saving CeeCee Honeycutt” and the novels of Lorna Landvik, this is a nice novel with a great sense of time and place. Velva Jean faces many challenges, but you know she will eventually persevere. And you know, once she learns to drive, exactly where she will be driving! I’m looking forward to reading her adventures in Nashville and beyond!