13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
I liked Maureen Johnson’s other books, so I added this one to my list, although it looked a little less mature than the books I usually like. It pleasantly surprised me, though, with an ending that was unresolved and realistic. In this book, the protagonist Ginny’s artist aunt dies, and leaves Ginny with a kind of scavenger hunt through Europe as part of her will. The blue envelopes tell her where to go and what to do. She travels around, visiting various famous and less famous places, and gets involved with a young playwright named Keith. The lessons Ginny learns are not life-changing, but it’s an interesting and fun read. Recommended more for younger teens.
The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson
In this sequel, Ginny returns to England about 6 months after her previous trip, hoping to reconnect with Keith, and figure out what to say in her college application essays. A mysterious and prickly young man offers to give her back the envelopes she lost–for a price. The final envelope takes the group on another scavenger hunt through Europe. The ending is about as good as the first one too. A decent sequel.
This fantasy series is set in early medieval Ireland. These awesome fantasy books feature compelling female first person narrators, beautiful sentences, and romantic love stories. There are mysteries, secrets, political alliances, fairies, prophecies, and an elegiac sense of magic about to leave the world. The series is a set of two trilogies, so I’ve really just scratched the surface.
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
When a sorceress puts her brothers under a spell that turns them into swans, Sorcha has to endure a harrowing trial to break the spell. Over several years, she works to weave them shirts of nettles from scratch, while enduring rape and kidnapping in silence. There are some problematic aspects to this one: Stockholm syndrome, was that rape really necessary? But overall, I was enchanted by the book and in awe of its heroine and her incredible determination and stamina.
Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier
Sorcha’s daughter, Liadan, is the focus of this book. She is also kidnapped, and falls in love with her captor, but she is quite sassy to him throughout, and ends up saving his life in more ways than one. I was impressed by Liadan’s political acumen as she bargains for her lover’s life and discerns who she should share her prophetic visions of the future with. The story picks up some threads that the first book left open, and leaves several others dangling in turn, so that the next book promises to be amazing.
Here are two books concerning WWII and the Holocaust that I’ve read recently. These books are hard to read because of their brutally intense subject matter, but they’re educational, entertaining, and uplifting.
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
A woman goes to Poland to investigate her late grandmother’s origins and finds that she was a survivor of a death camp and her grandfather was a resistance fighter who rescued her. The story is framed by the grandmother’s retelling her own personal version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which served as a metaphor for her near death experience and was her way of telling her grandchildren about her own history.
When I picked up this book I had no idea it would be about the Holocaust, and thought it was just a fairy tale retelling. However, I thought the fairy tale frame was the least effective part of the story, and the Holocaust narrative was much more compelling. I thought it was interesting how the book highlighted the resistance fighters and some of the less well-known classes of Holocaust victims, like the gay man who narrates much of the story.
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
This sequel to Code Name Verity is about Rose Justice, friend and bridesmaid of Maddie, the surviving protagonist from that book. Rose is an American pilot who joins the Air Transport Auxiliary. She is intercepted while flying over Germany and is put into a women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruck. There, she befriends the “rabbits,” women who were maimed as part of “experiments” by the Nazi doctors. It’s near the end of the war, and the Nazis are concerned with covering up their atrocities by destroying the evidence, while the prisoners band together to survive so that they can tell the world what was done to them. It’s a satisfying story because Rose and her friends achieve some small victories over the Nazis by hiding to avoid being gassed, causing riots over bread, and eventually even totally escaping. The story ends with the Nuremburg trials, which Rose attends as a reporter. Rose is a poet as well as a pilot, so she makes up some very moving verses about her experiences, with aerial flight as a metaphor. Another remarkable aspect of the book is its inclusion of a former concentration camp employee as a sympathetic character.
Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb This fantasy trilogy got even better with its second volume. I really enjoyed Assassin’s Apprentice, in which royal bastard Fitz is recruited by his grandfather the king to be a secret assassin. The first book mostly lays the foundation for the trilogy, while this book takes it to a very adult place, as Fitz becomes a man, has a serious relationship, fights in a war, and has to make some hard choices concerning his loyalties and their limits. It’s a very engrossing read, with formal high fantasy language, multi-dimensional characters, and dramatic high stakes. Hobb’s psychological astuteness as she portrays Fitz’s relationship ambivalence and his court strategizing is impressive. Two characters that interested and surprised me most are Molly, Fitz’s girlfriend, and Queen-in-Waiting Kettricken. The intrigues and shifting alliances in this royal court entrap Fitz until his end is almost classically tragic. I can’t wait to see the comeback he makes in the next book, to see him solve the mystery of the Red Ships, and to see the villain get his due. I think this series would make a great TV show comparable to Game of Thrones, except that a lot of the drama would be difficult to portray on screen, since it involves telepathic magic. I highly recommend this series to anyone who likes fantasy.
Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer
This is one of my favorite memoirs I’ve ever read. Dederer describes the pressures of hipster parenting incredibly well. The story spans several years as she has two babies, moves from Seattle to Boulder and back, and becomes increasingly interested in yoga as exercise and philosophy. She also deals with some issues from her family of origin: her parents separated without divorcing in the 70’s, and her mother went to live with another man. I really related to her struggles with perfectionism. Here’s a great long quote that kind of encapsulates the central problem Dederer begins the book with:
We were a generation of hollow-eyed women, chasing virtue. We, the mothers of North Seattle, were consumed with trying to do everything right. Breast-feeding was simply the first item in a long, abstruse to-do-list: cook organic food, buy expensive wooden toys, create an enriching home environment, attend parenting lectures, sleep with your child in your bed, ensure that your house was toxin-free, use cloth diapers, carry your child in a sling, make your own baby food, dress your child in organic fibers, join a baby group so your child could develop peer attachments. And don’t quit your job. But be sure to agonize about it. And enjoy an active sex life. But only with your spouse! Also, don’t forget to recycle.
Goodness ruled me. I was thirty-one. All the moms I knew, at least the ones who were my age and lived in my zip code, lived by this set of rules. It was a variant form of that oldie, perfectionism, but without the hang-ups about appearances. We didn’t want to look good. We wanted to be good. We wanted a kind of moral cleanliness to touch our lives.
When I read those lines I was hooked. By the end I felt like I had learned and grown alongside Dederer, and that’s a feeling you love to get from a memoir.
The yoga stuff, though it was so central to the story and to Dederer’s evolution, was probably the least interesting part of the book to me personally. Especially Dederer’s hand-wringing about whether Western yoga is cultural appropriation. Mostly the classes she attends and the poses she describes seem to serve as a metaphor for releasing the tension in her life. As a metaphor it worked pretty effectively. I guess I’m proof that you don’t have to be interested in yoga to enjoy this book.
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
This novel is from the point of view of a psychiatric nurse caring for Zelda Fitzgerald. The nurse really enmeshes herself in the Fitzgeralds’ dysfunctional marriage, to the extent that it’s unhealthy for her as well as her charges. The book really paints F. Scott Fitzgerald in an unflattering light. He’s controlling and alcoholic, leeching off his wife for creative inspiration while preventing her from self-expression. Zelda is described as so fascinating and dynamic that it makes you mourn for the books she might have written and the art she might have created if she’d been allowed. At the same time, she’s kind of the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, playing that role in her husband’s life, and in this novel, in the life of her nurse as well. Zelda makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s Sister” and the waste of a genius born female in an age that wasn’t ready for that. The ending for Zelda is of course tragic, but the nurse’s own life improves over the course of the story, which balances some of the melancholy.
City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare
At the end of City of Fallen Angels, Jace disappeared, linked with the villain Sebastian and possessed by him. The Clave has called off its search Jace’s friends fear that his connection with Sebastian makes him a target. They summon demons and angels to break the bond, and Clary pursues Jace with the help of a fairy ring. The action moves quickly, as the group splits off to complete different parts of the plan, and then regroups to work on plan B or C.
The side characters are a strength of this series. Isabelle, Simon, Alec, Magnus, Maia and Jordan all have compelling love story subplots and even some steamy scenes of their own. That was a good thing, since in previous books Jace and Clary sometimes grated on me. However, in this book they didn’t, probably largely because being possessed kept Jace from displaying his most annoying characteristics and excused the lack of communication that created the narrative tension. The scene where he was temporarily free from his possession was the most powerful in the novel.
The ending sets up the final volume in the Mortal Instruments series to be pretty awesome. Jace and Clary are reunited and beginning to plot Sebastian’s demise, their romance hindered by some physical limitations that will surely disappear just in time to celebrate their final victory. Some other narrative loose ends that will have to be resolved: the Praetor Lupus calling in Maia’s favor, Simon’s new vulnerability to his vampire enemies, and the machinations of the fairy queen. Clare has built an intriguing magical world, populated it with flawed, brave people, and given them a nasty villain to fight. I’m glad it’s going to be getting the cable TV series treatment. Pass the popcorn, please.