Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes

Every girl should have a quirky but loving aunt, a free spirit unencumbered by the responsibilities of motherhood who encourages her niece to think outside the box and embrace the unknown. I had one. So did seventeen year-old Ginny Blackstone, in Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes (HarperTeen, 2006).

This whirlwind of a book begins with a letter to Ginny from her Aunt Peg, an artist. Aunt Peg has enclosed $1,000 cash for a passport, a one-way ticket from New York to London, and a backpack, along with four rules and instructions to pick up a package at 4th Noodle, the Chinese restaurant under her old apartment in New York City. The package turns out to be a packet of thirteen letters, the first of which is to be opened on the plane.

This kind of action was just something Ginny might have expected from Aunt Peg, who had mysteriously left New York City two years earlier for an open-ended trip to Europe.
But Aunt Peg had died of a fast-moving brain tumor three months earlier. 
Guided by the letters and Aunt Peg’s friends, Ginny visits London, Edinburgh, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, the Greek island of Corfu, and finally, back to London. Along the way, Ginny collects pieces of information about her beloved and enigmatic aunt, finds romance, and learns something about herself.

At times, Johnson’s plot seems a little implausible. Would Ginny’s practical mother really allow her daughter to go to Europe solo on an adventure orchestrated by her unpredictable sister Peg? My advice is to suspend disbelief and just enjoy Ginny’s European adventure. Let go, as Aunt Peg might have said, and live a little. Harrod’s of London, Rome’s narrow and bustling streets, Parisian cafés, the canals of Amsterdam, a trip on a modern-day Danish Viking’s houseboat to see the windmills, the impossibly blue waters of Corfu—all come to life in Johnson’s vivid, lively descriptions.

Why am I recommending a book that came out in 2006? Because the sequel to “13 Little Blue Envelopes,” titled The Last Little Blue Envelope, was just released in April of this year (that one’s for another review!). If you want to join Ginny on her next European adventure, you really owe it to yourself to read the first one. Perfect summer reading for high school girls with a little wanderlust but no Aunt Peg to send them to Europe.

And now a note about what I think was brilliant marketing. Maureen Johnson offered a free download of 13 Little Blue Envelopes to coincide with the publication of the above-mentioned sequel, The Last Little Blue Envelope, betting (rightly, in my case), that reading the first book would motivate people to buy the second. This seems like a great strategy for authors of series books. I rarely (never?) pick up a book mid-series without having read the first one. What do you think? 

Based on my review originally published in The News-Gazette, June 26, 2011. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Double rainbow

I just returned from a road trip to St. Peter, Minnesota to help a dear friend celebrate her 60th birthday. It's a  9 hour drive each way, although I would drive any distance for this woman. I generally like road trips, unless I happen to get caught in a raging, pull-over-to-the-side-of-the-road-because-I-can't-see thunderstorm  as I did--twice!--on the way back. But I was rewarded after the storm by the sight of this double rainbow, somewhere near LeRoy, Illinois.

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Revolver" Loaded With Suspense

"Even the dead tell stories."

So begins Marcus Sedgwick's terrific novel “Revolver” (Roaring Book Press, 2010), a Prinz Honor Book for 2011. Fourteen year-old Sig Andersson had heard his father say these words many times before. Now, with his father's frozen corpse lying on the table in his family's cabin somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, Sig waits for the dead man's story to unfold.

The main action of Revolver takes place in just three days in 1910 outside of Giron, a lonely outpost in northern Scandinavia. The Giron chapters are interspersed with passages set in Nome, Alaska in 1899-1900 that fill in the back-story. Sig has found his father, fallen halfway through the ice where he’d tried to cross the nearby lake on his dogsled. Sig realizes that his father must have been in a terrible rush to get home, violating his own advice, "Never cross the lake by the river mouth; the ice is always thinner there. Even in wintertime." But what—or who—could have caused his father to abandon all caution in his haste to get home?

After his sister and stepmother (their mother was murdered in Nome) leave to get help, Sig’s first clue to the mystery of his father’s death arrives in the form of a terrifying visitor, a giant of a man named Günter Wolff. Wolff claims that Sig’s father owes him a share of gold, stolen while both were working in Nome. Sig knows nothing of the gold; neither does his sister Anna, who returns alone. Now both Sig and Anna are Wolff’s captives. He makes it clear that he will kill one of them to get the other to reveal the location of the stolen gold.

Sig realizes that their only hope lies in his father’s beloved Colt revolver, hidden in the storeroom near the cabin. Although Sig’s mother and stepmother were both devout, nonviolent women who hated the revolver, Sig’s father called it, “the most beautiful thing in the world…after your sister, and your dear mother, that is…. things can be “beautiful from the inside, because of what they can do.” In the remarkable passage that follows, Sig’s father describes exactly how a gun works and shows his children how to shoot. In his words, it is indeed a beautiful thing, although, as Anna says, “what happen when the bullet hits something? Someone, I mean. That’s not beautiful. That’s terrible.”

Gradually, Sig comes up with a plan for using his father’s revolver to defeat Wolff, while at the same time honoring his mother’s pacifism. Teens who like the books of Gary Paulsen and Jack London will love “Revolver.” It’s a quick read, but the questions it raises—truth-telling versus deceit, faith versus action, violence versus pacifism—will stick with you for a long time.

Originally published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, June 5, 2011.


I can't believe my previous post was dated February 14, 2009! Well, actually, I can. A lot has changed since then, and I've decided it's time to give blogging a go again. I have three new books on forensic science coming out this fall, and I wanted to be able to tell you all about them. I hope that all of my old readers will come back, and that I'll get some new ones as well.

I have a new website (see the link at the right), which I hope you'll check out. I discovered that for some reason websites created with iWeb often are not correctly formatted (or sometimes not at all) on the Chrome browser, so I decided to switch to a free website creator called Weebly . So far I'm pretty happy with it. Let me know what you think.

Every three weeks I write a review of YA books for our local newspaper, The News-Gazette. I had all of my book reviews posted on my old website's blog; eventually I hope to transfer them all to this blog. I'll start with the most recent and work my way back.