Book review: ‘The Last Little Blue Envelope’ by Maureen Johnson

It’s been months since Ginny Blackstone left Greece without the final of a series of envelopes from her beloved Aunt Peg — a collection of instructions that took her on a cross-European adventure and got her break out of her timid shell. While carrying out the last of Peg’s wishes, Ginny’s bag was stolen . . . and the last envelope was gone with it.

Back in the U.S., Ginny receives mysterious word that someone has discovered her bag — and Peg’s instructions. Relieved, scared and excited, Ginny leaves for London in the hope that she’ll be able to finish the project she started. But returning to England and meeting Oliver, the new keeper of the envelopes, does nothing but reopen old wounds. Coupled with discovering that Keith, the enigmatic and handsome actor she met on her first tour, is still in London — but not still single — Ginny is quickly realizing her life could get out of control.

But she’s on a mission — and has a job to finish. It might take most of her money and a bit of her sanity, but it’s time to take the plunge.

Maureen Johnson’s The Last Little Blue Envelope, sequel to her madcap adventure 13 Little Blue Envelopes, is an international romp I enjoyed even more than the first book. For all her traveling and bravado, Ginny still seems meek — but it’s the appearance of Oliver, a brooding Brit with an agenda, that really spices up the story.

The strength of this book — of all the Johnson books I’ve read — is her cutting sense of humor. The wit isn’t as overt in The Last Little Blue Envelope as it is on Twitter, perhaps, but Johnson has a talent for creating surreal situations that enchant readers and draw them heavily into a story. The pacing was brisk and exciting, and I couldn’t help but feel like something crazy was going to happen at any minute.

Being obsessed with travel, the Envelope books were both fascinating reads for me. Ginny’s adventures this go ’round take her to Paris, Amsterdam, Dublin, London and Wales, and reading about Ireland was a warm, refreshing change of pace. I did a double take after reading that Richard, Ginny’s pseudo-uncle, lives in Islington; Ginny took the Angel tube stop to reach his home. In April, I stayed at a hotel just blocks from there and used the Angel station as our “home base” on the trip. It was exciting to see it in print and immediately have a mental picture to accompany it.

I loved the romantic tension between Oliver, Ginny and Keith — not all together, of course — and thought Johnson did well to make Oliver so different from the previous object of Ginny’s affection. You want to dislike Oliver — and distrust him — but Keith somehow comes out looking like a bigger prat. I was rooting for Oliver and Ginny almost from the beginning.

And that wasn’t hard to do. The book isn’t terribly unpredictable, as it were; in fact, I could spot the ending early on. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still fun meandering Amsterdam’s canals and Paris’ cafes with this random assortment of characters, and I finished this book in two sittings. A fun, diverting read — especially for the armchair traveler.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061976792 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

British escape, part III: Grasmere and the Lake District

This is my third post featuring a spring trip abroad.
For previous travel posts, visit here.

Ever been somewhere you stopped and thought, Wow. This is living. And then the world you normally inhabit — “home,” wherever that place might be — just colors in comparison to this crazy, awesome neck of the woods you had the pleasure to visit?

Well, that’s how I felt about Grasmere, England. Our third day on a travel tour in April brought us to this gorgeous spot in the Lake District, which I’ve read about in Jane Austen novels for years but never researched. Um, the Lake District? Incredible. Really heart-stoppingly gorgeous, and a place I can’t wait to return to someday.

But I’ll have to wait. Because I have zero idea how we got there.

I was so zonked out on this trip, friends, I can’t even tell you. Jet lag has long been an issue for me, but I was still struggling to stay awake days after arriving in England. It was a challenge to keep my eyes open anytime we straggled onto our tour bus, and what a shame — because I know I missed some of the most breathtaking views as we drove from Leeds to the Lake District and up to Scotland. I’ve teased you with photos from this region before, but nothing does it justice.

We arrived in Grasmere around lunchtime, which was perfect — just in time for my first round of fish and chips! An old-fashioned steam train picked us up in the countryside and deposited us near a ferry, which took us across Lake Windemere. Our bus was waiting on the other side. It was brisk, like much of the trip, but the air was so clean and fresh! It felt like your lungs got a good scrubbing. Mom and I got hot chocolate and coffee drinks aboard the ferry, and our steaming beverages were served in real porcelain cups. Aboard a moving, swaying boat.

Oh, those fancy Brits!

The view from the ferry was incredible. Sailboats were framed by giant, rising hills, and we were close enough to the shore to see folks out for a leisurely stroll. It was one of those moments where you actually stop and think, “Someone lives here.” It seemed too lovely to be real — a vacation spot for foreigners, like us, and not somewhere you could actually establish roots. But, like many of the gorgeous spots I’ve seen, folks do live there — and they’re happy to see you.

It was just that way in Grasmere. Our tour guide, Steve, took us first to see the grave of William Wordsworth, famous poet, and discuss the time in which he lived in the village. One of the Lake Poets, Wordsworth lived and worked at Dove Cottage in Grasmere for many years, and the town’s famous resident is still present everywhere. On our ride away from Grasmere, Steve recited Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” — a great close to our afternoon there.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze . . .

Like everywhere we traveled, we didn’t have nearly as much time in the village as I would have liked. A quick lunch of fish, chips and mushy peas was washed down with Diet Pepsi — the first time I’d seen that particular drink on our trip. We could occasionally find a Diet Coke, sure, but Pepsi products seemed non-existent in England! I’m not big on the whole Pepsi/Coke debate, but it was strange not to have options. Also, they had iced tea in a case at the restaurant — something else that got us over-the-top pumped. Because, you know, you can’t ask for iced tea in England . . . they think you’re crazy. Or sacrilegious.

Just don’t do it.

Awesome beverage selection included, we had a wonderful time in the Lake District. I was too taken in by the scenery to snap many photos, but I did document the homemade gingerbread my sister snagged. Unlike our death march through Italy, we were well-fed on this vacation . . . and I’m still fantasizing about some of the meals we enjoyed abroad. Especially when, you know, I’m reminiscing about this following a measly lunch of salad with a fat-free dressing in the office.


If you ever find yourself in the Lake District, don’t miss out on Grasmere and its incredible surroundings; I’ll be thinking about this leg of our journey for a long time. And from there, it was on to Scotland . . .

Tune in next time!

Book review: ‘The London Train’ by Tessa Hadley

Paul should be happy. His life is filled with warm days in Wales, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. Though he hasn’t written much in years, the possibility exists that he could again — someday. Sometime. The idyllic country life is a far cry from his upbringing in England, and he likes it that way. It makes me feel . . . at peace, perhaps.

But a call reporting his mother’s death, though not unexpected, sends him writhing from his cocoon. And it’s not long before he receives more news — this time about his eldest daughter, Pia, born during his first marriage. She’s gone missing, her mother says; she hasn’t sent word of where she’s gone, just disappeared into the ether of London. And Paul — her distant, unavailable father — should recover her.

In the second half of Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, we meet Cora — a solitary librarian to Cardiff, Wales, newly separated from her husband and struggling to repair the crumbling facade of her childhood home. After escaping London and her life with Robert, a serious public official, Cora throws herself completely into the aging house. And just as she’s come to grips with her new world, something comes along to change it all over again.

A novel in two parts, we’re not told if or how these people know one another. We’re presented the facts — unchangeable; serene — by an omniscient narrator, someone who puts Paul and Cora’s defects and stunning qualities equally on display. We know Paul is not a capable man; we realize he’s not always a likeable man. But, despite everything, he’s trying. We think he’s trying.

Hadley’s novel has the unique distinction of being both high-brow and accessible. It’s not written with flowery, over-the-top language, but it’s not colloquial or dull, either. Hadley has a way of introducing us to people that we don’t particularly sympathize with but still feel as though we understand. Upon completing The London Train, I can’t honestly say that any of these people could be my best friends . . . but I don’t need them to be. I can read about them and their difficult, messy lives, then move on.

Very introspective, this novel falls into the category where not much actually happens — but so much does. As the story unfurls and reveals more and more about Paul and Cora’s lives, particularly in the past, we’re painted an accurate glimpse of two very interior lives. The novel could have become dry — very, very easily — but, you know? It didn’t. It really didn’t. I started reading on a Friday evening and wound up finishing almost half before my body threatened to pummel me if I didn’t sleep. Hadley’s writing is mesmerizing.

Though it lacked the strong emotional ties I crave to really make a book a favorite, I can certainly see why The London Train was longlisted for the Orange Prize and is generating buzz. The story’s strength, like all good books, lies with the characters. For good or for ill, these were people I really got to know. Without much difficulty, I could probably sketch you a list of their likes and dislikes, pains and triumphs. They’re people who will stay with me, especially Paul. It brings chance encounters to new, romantic and heartbreaking heights.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062011839 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

British escape, part II: Stratford-upon-Avon and York

This is my second post featuring a recent trip abroad. For the first part, visit here.

Waking up early in London, I was well aware that the trip was shaping up to be as much of a death march as previous “vacations” — but that’s okay. For my family, trips are opportunities to see exotic places, learn about new cultures and always, always, always keep moving. We’re not really good at “down time,” and we don’t see the point in “vegging out.”

These are all nasty words to us.

Still, prying my jetlagged eyes open at 4 a.m. for a 5 a.m. breakfast time was its own unique brand of torture. I’m notorious for waking up a half hour before I need to be out the door, and rooming with my sister — also a lover of sleep — was a little scary. I set two alarm clocks to make sure we didn’t oversleep.

And then it was off to Stratford-upon-Avon, our first “official” stop as part of our Trafalgar tour. We met our wonderful tour guide, Steve, a retired teacher originally from Wales, and he introduced us to the rest of our 51-member group for the next week or so. Traveling in a large group has advantages and disadvantages, of course; all traveling does. But one funny thing about being a part of a tour group is that you all wander into the hotel lobby as strangers but eventually part as friends. At the conclusion of our trip, I can honestly say I got to know — and like — many people on our “coach,” and my horizons? Expanded.

But I digress.

Stratford-upon-Avon is the birthplace of William Shakespeare, famous playwright and poet — and someone I’ve studied extensively. Just outside of town is a cottage that was the childhood home of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. After traversing winding roads and getting my first real glimpse of the English countryside, we arrived at the cottage and had a group photo taken. I took to the gardens like a moth to a flame, capturing the buds from every angle. I also got my first taste of the tour’s unofficial theme: go, go, go.

We never stopped moving.

It was absolutely beautiful, though. Set in a lush garden with visitors flocking to photograph every window and thatched roof, I immediately fell in love with the idyllic setting and wished I could just collapse amid the flowers with a book. It was off to the city centre, though, where we had lunch and saw the exterior of the building in which Shakespeare himself was born.

And it was quite the popular place.

“If you think this is bad,” Steve said, “trust me, it’s not. Just wait a few months. July. August. Then it’s bad — the crowds are three times as large.”

That’s hard for me to believe, I thought, looking up from my tuna panini at the swarms of high school students waiting to enter the Shakespeare Centre. People seemed to be everywhere: ducking in the souvenir shops and books carrying tomes of the Bard’s work; clothing stores with wool sweaters and postcards. Waiting in line for food, coffee, icecream (99 Flake!). The center of town was alive with tourists and locals alike, all meshed together and chatting under a lovely blue sky.

I wondered if Stratford-upon-Avon is a school prerequisite in England; if they visit Shakespeare’s birthplace the way that every student in my elementary school took a short ride to the White House in second grade. Washington, D.C. is nothing different or spectacular for children where I live; everyone has been there or has a parent (or two) that work there. Has Stratford lost its appeal for British children? Is it just another spot to cross off the list — a destination worthy of a field trip and not much more?

I hope not. It was really cool.

After grabbing lunch and popping into a few shops, we left the town for York, a lovely medieval town a few hours away. Steve escorted us through busy streets teeming with shoppers to see the remnants of an incredibly old structure (sorry, Steve, but I’ve already forgotten what this is!) and spend some time walking through town. It was there that I found my beloved clotted cream fudge — a delicacy I’d never heard of nor experienced until that afternoon — and I whiled away the rest of the afternoon while stuffing my face full of candy.

It was awesome.

York was very beautiful and impressive — a modern town wedged into a historic one, a place that seems to embody what I imagined “medieval” England to be. York Minster — the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe — seems to loom up from out of the imagination, too gigantic and amazing to be real. We poked our heads in just as a service was beginning, taking in the powerful organs and artifacts on display.

There’s something about being in a cathedral that makes you feel closer to God somehow . . . maybe that’s wrong to say aloud, but it’s true. The way I feel about religion and Christ and the powers that be is completely different inside an enormous structure with high ceilings, stained glass and choirs than in the tiny churches we have at home. It’s just easier to . . . feel something there.

Part of that is probably because I was traveling, too. I always feel like a different person — maybe a better person — when I’m on a journey.

Maybe travel is my religion.

Maybe many things are.

On the steps of York Minster, we listened to a street performer playing hymns on an electronic keyboard while waiting for the rest of our tour group to find their way back to us. Fifty people strong, we were an impressive crowd as the sun was setting — this group of strangers who had traveled thousands of miles to arrive in one spot together.

Our first official tour day ended in Leeds, where we enjoyed dinner at the hotel before crashing early. The next day was already catching up to us quick. We would be heading to Grasmere and the Lake District, a place I’d been dying to see since Jane Austen inspired Lake District lust in me, and I needed sleep to stay awake on our journey through the countryside the following day.

I dozed off with dreams of clotted cream fudge in my head, threatening to give me sweet and delicious nightmares forever.