Review: The Madness Underneath

The Madness Underneath: The Shades of London, Book Two by Maureen Johnson. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2013. Personal copy. Sequel to The Name of the Star.

The Plot: Rory, physically recovered from being stabbed by a killer ghost, returns to her boarding school. That ghost is gone, but she soon realizes that other dangerous ghosts are haunting London. As Rory tries to navigate her separate worlds (student by day, ghost hunter by night) she discovers that there are sometimes things more dangerous than ghosts.

The Good: While I enjoyed The Name of the Star, I loved, loved, loved The Madness Underneath. The Name of the Star is like the TV Pilot that gets the gang together and sets up a premise and The Madness Underneath is the episode where it all comes together and sparks fly.

The Madness Underneath quickly brings the reader up to speed, so, to be honest, I don’t think you need to start with The Name of the Star. Rory can see ghosts; her family and her friends at boarding school don’ t know this; she sneaks out at all hours to assist ghost-seeing ghost-hunters. Got it? Good.

Rory, quite understandably, hasn’t been concentrating on her school work, on account of the whole being stabbed and almost dying thing. Also, ever since then, it’s not just that she can see ghosts; with a touch, she can kill them. Or, whatever it is you call it when the ghost goes away, permanently. The ghost hunters — Stephen, Callum, and Boo — send some mixed messages. She’s valuable because of her ability to terminate ghosts. She cannot tell anyone anything about them, ever. She’s on call when they need her. She cannot be an official part of the team because she’s still in school and is an American. In other words, not only does Rory have a lot going on, there’s also no one with whom she can be completely honest. Her lies keep piling up.

Rory suspects a local murder isn’t what it seems; at the same time, she starts seeing a new therapist who really seems to be able to help her. The Madness Underneath is a mystery, so I don’t want to give too much plot-wise away, but things get complicated and it all happens fast. Every now and then I was a few steps ahead of Rory; other times, I was finding things out at the same time she was. (Long time readers of this blog know that is just how I like my mysteries, because I get to be both smart and surprised.) What interested me as a reader is that the mystery wasn’t what it seemed to be, at first, and I liked that sleight of hand.

What I can give away? Rory herself, who is funny, adding needed humor to a tale that is otherwise, when one steps back and thinks about it, deep and dark and layered. “Julia might well have asked me, ‘Rory, do you want me to go live in the sky? On a Pegasus?’ It was not going to happen.”

Rory is also pretty smart in her observations about those around her. Here she is on her boyfriend Jerome: “I’d gotten used to not being around Jerome, and strangely, this had made us closer. We’d definitely gotten more serious in the last two weeks, but we’d done it all over the phone or on a screen. I’d grown accustomed to Jerome as a text message, and it was somewhat unsettling to have the actual person sliding down the wall to sit next to me. Unsettling, but also a bit thrilling.

Rory can be as honest about herself, sometimes: “I liked being right, and I liked being powerful, and I liked the way I felt right now.

As for the end of The Madness Underneath. I’ll be honest: some may call it a cliff-hanger and cry “no.” I like it; the questions raised were answered. That a new question was raised at the end, well, that sometimes happens.

For all these reasons — the plotting, the writing, Rory’s humor, the romance, the mystery — this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other Reviews: The Book Smugglers; bookshelves of doom; Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Reading Rants.


Review: The Name of the Star

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. Shades of London, Book One. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin. 2011. Personal copy.

The Plot: Rory Deveaux is spending her senior year at Wexford, a boarding school in London. Meeting new people, figuring out a new school system, being in London instead of a small town in Louisiana, should be amazing.  And it is — except for the murders. Murders that are mimicking the infamous 1888 Jack the Ripper murders. Rory and her fellow students try to get on with life and school; all that changes when Rory sees someone suspicious by the school, someone the police think may be their Prime Suspect. Someone only Rory saw. Is Rory at risk?

The Good: The Name of the Star has a slow build to the big reveal — which is not that there are Jack the Ripper murders happening. The reader knows that from page one. No, the “reveal” is more about who Rory sees, and why she sees him, and who he is. While she spots him about page 100; sixty odd pages later she learns why.

Before that point, The Name of the Star is a boarding school book, full of the details that people like me swoon over. No, really, Johnson doesn’t just say that Rory wears a school uniform. Instead, the reader gets “ten white dress shirts, three dark gray skirts, one gray and white striped blazer, one maroon tie, one gray sweater with the school crest on the breast, twelve pairs of gray kneesocks.” And that’s not including the PE uniforms! Johnson puts us firmly in Rory’s new world, sharing everything from a map to the area to the food she likes, the food at school and the friends she is making. “An American Teen in London” is interrupted by the Ripper murders.

There is a mystery, but it is not yet Rory’s mystery. Rory’s story is one of suspense (what is happening with the murders?) and possible romance (Jerome). Jerome: he is like the perfect book boyfriend, not in the sense that he is perfect, and not in the sense that he is a boyfriend, but in the sense that Johnson perfectly portrays a typical teen romance that is, well, typical. It’s not overwhelmed by having it be any more or any less than what it is: two young people being attracted to each other, having fun kissing, and trying to work out what that means. After one kissing session with Jerome, Rory thinks “when you live with someone — or on the same campus, I mean — and you have a mad make-out session, you have two choices. You can either indicate that you enjoy your mad make-out sessions and intend to indulge in them at every given opportunity . . . or you do not acknowledge the make-out session, or indeed any physical attraction. There is no middle ground, not at boarding school.”

Then, it happens — the murders touch Rory’s world.


It’s not what you may think; one of the murders takes place very close to Rory, yes, but that’s not the big reveal.

The thing is, Rory has acquired more than uniforms and friends at her London school. She’s also gained a new talent: no, not field hockey. Seeing dead people. Seeing, specifically, the ghosts of dead people. This unique ability pulls Rory into the mystery, into the search for the person recreating the murders, and into danger. She also encounters a Torchwood-like squad of similarly gifted young people. At this point, the action is much more involved than “how early do I have to get up to have enough time in the shower I share with so many other girls” or “kissing Jerome.”

As I said above, it’s almost half way through the book before Rory sees a ghost, or, rather, realizes that she is seeing ghosts. Here’s why I like that timing, as opposed to giving it to us on page one or chapter one: that’s life. One minute, you’re worrying about classes and friends, the next, life changes, and that life change is not conveniently at the start of things, it’s sometimes in the middle. Why, in shows like Supernatural or Buffy or The Vampire Diaries, must the supernatural reveal always happen right away? What about the lives people led, the normalcy of their routines, before it all went witches and vampires or, in this case, ghosts? I like it in part because I’ve wanted, for a while, to read a book or series where the “supernatural is REAL” moment happens late in the game.

Review: The Last Little Blue Envelope

 The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson. HarperCollins. 2010. Review from ARC from ALA Midwinter.

The Plot: In Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny Blackstone was left thirteen envelopes by her late aunt, resulting in a tour of Europe that pushed Ginny outside her comfort zone and gave her some insight and understanding into the life of her Aunt Peg. Unfortunately, it all ended with the unopened thirteenth envelope was stolen.

It’s a few months later and Ginny is in her senior year, trying to figure out her future as well as to keep living the lessons she learned over the summer. To her surprise, she is contacted by a stranger who has found the stolen envelopes … and a new adventure begins.

The Good: I’m sure I’m not the only one who threw Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes across the room when the last envelope was stolen. ARGH. And while I understood and it made perfect sense for the book, I still was very ARGH about it. So I was pleased as punch when I heard that there was going to be a sequel and my torment would end.

Yes, this is a sequel, so yes, I recommend reading the first book first. I read the first one when it came out and yes, I forgot some of the key points and no doubt my reading experience would have been richer had I reread the book. But, I didn’t, and I still enjoyed it.

Ginny is hilarious. I love her observations and internal commentary on what is happening. From early on in the book: “She looked at the calendar she had made for herself out of sticky notes on the wall next to her desk. Today’s note read: Sunday, December 12: FINISH ESSAY!!!!! NO, SERIOUSLY, THIS TIME FINISH THE ESSAY!!!!! And a few lines down, the due date: January 5. She pulled it off the wall and tossed it into the trash. Shut up, note. She didn’t take orders from anything that had a glue strip.” The whole book is like this; so if you’re looking for smart humor, read The Last Little Blue Envelope. (Which, for some reason, I keep wanting to call The Thirteenth Envelope.)

The mysterious Oliver contacts Ginny about the found letters; he is all and “come to London now if you want your letters back.” Kind of like Aunt Peg was to Ginny: “do what I say in the blue envelopes.” Ginny takes her winter holiday break to go to London, stay with her Aunt Peg’s husband, and, honestly, to see Keith, her “kind of something” flirty-kissy friend she met in the first book. And, yes, to get the envelope. It all turns out to be exactly what Ginny planned… and nothing like Ginny planned. The last envelope contains new directions that send Ginny to a mix of new and old places, and this time she has friends to keep her company. 

By the end of this book, I was resolved to start saving my money immediately to go to London, Paris, Dublin, and the other places Ginny visits. Johnson does a spectacular job of conveying a range of settings, in a way that makes you wish you were there. Except, I wouldn’t stay in hostels. Unless I had my own bathroom and my own bedroom.

Oliver and Keith are two very different, very interesting boys with a realistic mix of good and bad characteristics. Both, at times, do things that make you want to hit them — you know, a back of the head “thwap.” Both, at times, do things that make you go “awwww”. Neither is perfect. To say much more would give away those things I enjoyed learning for myself, so I will leave other readers the joy (and sorrow) of reading it themselves.

One quibble I had about the first book was that the free-spirited, artsy Aunt wanted to shake up her niece’s world and make her niece more free-spirited and artsy and did so by providing specific rules and “to do”s. On one level, it worked in that Ginny is the type of girl who needed that push and needed, well, those specifics. Also, since Aunt Peg wasn’t going to be around to do it in person — to take Ginny on a spontaneous tour of Europe — she was trying to do the next best thing. At the time, I told myself “this is the conceit of the book. Accept it, move along.” Still, it was a bit too “planned spontaneity.”

I was really pleased that halfway through The Last Little Blue Envelope, one of the characters raises some of the exact questions I had: “”Those rules, they were a bit mental.” “Did you ever think that she expected you to break some of them?”Maybe you like all the rules, the backtracking, the games.” I liked someone in text thinking what I had, and also leading me to new answers, such as Aunt Peg knowing Ginny would enjoy the game-aspect of the letters. Ginny didn’t just need that guidance; she wanted it. Aunt Peg knew her niece. And knew how to reach out and give Ginny what she needed and wanted.

I had forgotten how much of the first book was about art, creation of art, and the way an artist looks at the world. Aunt Peg’s last letter to Ginny is as much about giving Ginny a quest as it is about giving Ginny some training and education on art. Actually, I have a theory about that… when more people have read, let’s discuss.