Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson

I really enjoyed 13 Little Blue Envelopes and was excited to learn that Maureen Johnson had written a sequel. This was a fast and equally enjoyable read. At the end of the previous novel, Ginny Blackstone's backpack was stolen and with it the last little blue envelope in it. As The Last Little Blue Envelope opens, Ginny is struggling with writing the college admission essay that asks what is the turning point in your life. Of course it was the trip to England to follow her Aunt Peg's instructions. Then everything changes and she is contacted by Oliver, a mysterious young man, who has come into possession of the last little blue envelope. And so another adventure ensues.

Ginny contacts her Uncle Richard, OKs it with her parents, and takes off to find out Peg's last instructions. Although this adventure is not nearly as extensive as the last journey, there is still the excitement, twists, and a satisfying resolution.
In addition to Oliver, Ginny's friend Keith and his new girlfriend, Ellis join her on a journey to Paris, Belgium, Amsterdam, and eventually Ireland. The foursome must try to evade the police, while finding themselves in the midst of a very strange hostel overrun by cats. The tension between Keith and Ginny heightens as the book progresses. Ellis is a very likable character who is a real friend to Ginny.

Although the book could stand on its own, the reader will enjoy it much more if she has read
Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes. It is a great story and Johnson's attention to details of international travel is spot on. Dublin on New Year's Eve was enough for one to start packing a suitcase and boarding that plane to cross the pond- Guiness at Temple Bar, crossing the River Liffey, and the bells of Christchurch. Maybe that should be put on my bucket list. A good and satisfying read.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

Jennifer Donnelly weaves a story with the best of authors. I have been waiting for the third part of the trilogy since June, 2008 when I finished The Winter Rose. Can I just say that it was so worth the wait?

The novel opens in 1914 with England and Europe on the verge of World War II and in the throes of the suffragette movement, economic distress, and espionage. The reader is reacquainted with Fiona and Joe Bristow and their children, Seamus Finnegan, Maud and India Selwyn Jones, Willa Alden, and Max van Brandt and the story ensues. Fiona and Joe have a feisty daughter, Kate, who carries on the family fight for rights and political equity. Seamus has returned from the expedition to the South Pole and Willa is attempting her climb of Mt. Everest. Their paths all cross and are intertwined in complex relationships and twists. It is very hard to relate or summarize such a novel because of the turns that the plot takes from beginning to end. Suffice it to say that the reader remains engaged, enthralled and on the edge of her seat as it progresses.

Donnelly is a master of setting her novels and characters in the midst of historical events.
The Wild Rose is not an exception. Not only do we encounter the likes of Henry Asquith, liberal Prime Minister of England, Ernest Shackelton, Winston Churchill, and Lawrence of Arabia, but we are thrust into the dark days of the Spanish Flu epidemic and the bawdy days of Parisian bohemian life. I was glad that a good friend had made me watch Lawrence of Arabia. It made the scenes in the book much easier to comprehend. This volume of the trilogy centers around Seamus Finnegan, the third of the Finnegan children and his true love, Willa. At the end of The Winter Rose we are left with Seamie leaving Willa at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Willa heading for Mt. Everest. Of all the trilogy's characters, these two are the least likeable and one finds oneself wanting to shake them and awake them to the realities of life. Yes, Willa has lost a leg, but her whiny self deprecation and piteousness are way over the top. On the other hand, she has an incredible sense of adventure and, at least for some of the novel, a real desire to live life to its fullest. Seamie needs to understand that love is for life and women are not trophies to collect and count.
Not only does Donnelly craft characters, but she is a master of mood and setting. As the reader follows the action from Westminster to Wapping, from Cairo to Damascus, or from Nepal to Paris, the sounds, sights and even aromas spring to life. You know that the author has experienced the places about which she writes and that she can convey those pictures in an extremely graphic manner.
In the end, which by the way is a stellar shock and has a jaw-dropping effect, the book is the epitome of highly crafted writing and research. I reiterate: I aspire to be Jennifer Donnelly's research assistant. She addresses age-old problems of drug abuse, the mental effects of war, and the political machinations of those who aspire to leadership. I do hope that the characters will reappear, possible in a new series with Kate Bristow as the protagonist. I want to know more about her and her new-found career. But, for the moment, I will basque in the pleasure of having just read another marvelous tome by Jennifer Donnelly.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

The move has been completed and most of the boxes have been unpacked and so it was a treat to sit down with a book and forget about the real world for a minute or two. I began reading Revolution during one of the car rides back and forth from Watertown to Mars. Jennifer Donnelly is one of my favorite authors with whom I have been acquainted since she was a guest at Sackets Harbor School. She is a North Country native and garnished awards and praise for her YA book, A Northern Light, an historical novel set in the Adirondack Mountains and based on a true story of murder and cover-up. Revolution is also historical fiction that is a bit edgier and is also grounded in the present.

Andi Alpers is a senior in high school and is on the verge of not graduating. She is suffers from depression and a tremendous guilt over the death of her ten year old brother, Truman. She lives with her mother who has had a nervous breakdown over this event and the divorce from Andi's father. Music has been the constant in Andi's life. She composes, takes lessons and has a most interesting play list on her iPod. She remarks, "…music lives. Forever. …it’s stronger than death. Stronger than time. And its strength holds you together when nothing else can.” And "boys let you down, music never does." Andi's father finds out the academic trouble she is in and intervenes. He has her mother committed to an institution and whisks Andi away to Paris with him where he is working on an genetic project and where, under his scrutiny, Andi will work on her senior thesis - a paper on how the French musician Amade Malherbeau has influenced musicians up to the present day.

Upon her arrival in Paris, Andi discovers the diary of Alexandre, a street performer who lived during the French Revolution. Through the pages of the diary, Andi begins an adventure of self-discovery as she reads of Alex's struggle in helping to protect the young dauphin, Louis-Charles, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antionette. Further adding to this connection is the project on which Andi's father is working - DNA analysis of a heart that is believed to be that of Louis-Charles. Numerous persons have claimed to be the tortured child who actually escaped the prison in which he was held. The novel is multi-layered and circular. It is divided into parts that mirror Dante's Divine Comedy. Andi's guide in Paris is a cab driver/musician whose name is Virgil, just as the guide was through the circles of Hell.

Andi is determined to leave Paris as soon as possible, but she must finish an outline and intro to her thesis before her father will allow her. She works toward a deadline by researching Malherbeau, his works, and his life. He is inextricably tied to Alex and the Revolution. The reader travels with Andi to libraries, historic homes, and the mysterious catacombs. It is there that the truth becomes clearer to her, but where, also, the reader must suspend a grasp on reality. Andi's epiphany - "Life’s all about the revolution, isn’t it? The one inside, I mean. You can’t change history. You can’t change the world. All you can ever change is yourself."

Andi was a tough character to like at first, but she grew on me and I began to empathize with her plight. Alexandre was a feisty young woman who knew what she wanted in life, but rather than pursue that dream, put it on hold to protect the person whom she loved and who depended upon her for his life. I wanted to know more about her and the situation into which she was thrown.

Jennifer Donnelly is an AMAZING writer. Her books are meticulously researched and written. ( I joked with her once that I would gladly be a research assistant for her.) Having just returned from Paris in April, I was immediately transported back there with Andi. I have walked through the catacombs and with Donnelly's descriptions I know readers will also have that same experience vicariously. In Revolution Jennifer Donnelly proves once again that her mastery of storytelling, research, and the writing craft combine to make one fantastic read.