17-year-old Ginny idolizes her eccentric artist aunt, and feels drab and boring in comparison. When her aunt dies, she leaves Ginny thirteen little blue envelopes. The first envelope contains $1000, and instructions to buy a plane ticket to London and not to open the second little blue envelope until she lands. The second little blue envelope contains the address of a London flat…

I love this premise, and the first novel mostly lives up to it. Ginny is too thin a character to support the narrative weight she’s given, but the book gets by on charm. It’s a wish-fulfillment armchair travel book, and taken on those terms, rather than those of the outraged Amazon reviewers who would never ever let their teenage daughters travel Europe alone, it’s just right. (I was traveling alone internationally when I was nine, though admittedly turned over to the care of adults once I arrived at my destinations, so the concept of a teenager traveling alone did not strike me as horrifying or unbelievable.)

The first book was intended to stand on its own, but Johnson wrote a sequel several years later, I would bet at least partly based on hopeful reader inquiries. I will be a little vague to elide spoilers, but in the second book, Ginny finds that her aunt had another little blue envelope for her… but it’s held by a guy who thinks it’s valuable, and blackmails her to share the proceeds, if any. To ensure that she doesn't fink out, he accompanies her on her second trip around the world, once again dictated by her aunt from beyond the grave.

The sequel has enough structural and thematic similarities to the first novel to satisfy fans of that one, but has much stronger character development and more emotional depth. It also adds something which the first lacked, which is conflict. The blackmailer is a great character, and the many horrifically awkward moments between him, Ginny, and the others traveling with them are complete comedy gold.

If you liked the first, you will undoubtedly like the second; if you thought the first was just okay, you will very likely enjoy the sequel more. (If you hated the first, don’t bother with the second.)

I re-read the first novel and read the sequel while vacationing in Paris. I only wish that you all could enjoy these novels under such completely appropriate circumstances.

For the record, my very favorite book by Maureen Johnson is The Bermudez Triangle: the perfect balance of funny, honest, and sweet. Click on the author tag to see my review of it.

The Bermudez Triangle

13 Little Blue Envelopes

The Last Little Blue Envelope

Feel free to put spoilers about both books in comments.
Mely jumped off the bridge, so I will too. Since I despair of ever having time to write up everything individually, I have given brief reviews to the whole month below.

If anything's missing an author, it is because I am too lazy to look them up. If there's no comment, I already reviewed it here.

Three books got the comment wow, terrible! Guess it was a bad month for fiction. )
I'm thrilled to have discovered an excellent YA author who was previously new to me, and can't wait to read her other books.

I read Devilish first, because it was nominated for the Andre Norton Award; it's a snappy, fast-paced horror/comedy about a demons making deals in a Catholic girls' school. The first-person narrative voice is believeable and witty, the demonic details are simultaneously funny and horrific, and it's impossible to put down, but the whole book feels a bit lightweight: the characters are sharply drawn sketches, but still sketches, not portraits. The bit with the toes was fantastic, though.

The Bermudez Triangle has all the virtues of Devilish but is much deeper and more emotionally textured, and here even the minor characters seem more real. It probably helps that there's multiple points of view. Three girls have been friends forever, but when one of them goes away for a summer to a leadership camp, she meets a boy... and her two friends meet each other. Painful-- but not only painful-- complications ensue.

This could have been schematic and preachy (lesbians! coming out! environmentalists! interracial friendships! class issues!) but instead just feels like real life. The characters make some pretty terrible decisions at times, but in a way that's believable for teenagers, and manage to rise above their worse impulses in a way that's also believable and often very moving. Even more than Devilish, it's very funny and very page-turny.

If I started listing my favorite bits-- the beautifully observed depiction of a first romance, the faux-Irish restaurant which keeps inventing new and disgusting green foods, the mold which invades the hippie boyfriend's parents' house, Nina's conversation with Mel's father, the gay/lesbian dance, the hapless band, the rant about how a true boyfriend would live in his car and then eat it for love-- I would be typing all day.

Has anyone read any of Johnson's other books?


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