Okay, what do I even say about Maureen Johnson at this point? She’s awesome? I love her characters, her voice, her plotting? Does that about cover it?
Listen, Maureen Johnson has a certain style that you’ll either like or you won’t, and her books are all different versions of the same wonderful thing. Quirky and intelligent MC, no parents for miles, a way of inserting detail and humor into the text that keeps you just reading one page, no, two pages, no, twenty pages more… If this is the sort of thing you enjoy, then go read the first in the Shades of London series, or Truly Devious, or 13 Little Blue Envelopes. (And presumably anything else by Johnson, all of which I’m sure I’ll read eventually.) If you’re trying to decide between her series, here’s a cheat sheet:
- Shades of London series for ghosts (this book, The Madness Underneath, is book two)
- Truly Devious series for true crime and historical elements
- 13 Little Blue Envelopes series for quirky road trips
It’s been a while since I read the first Shades of London book, so I got to rediscover the MC, Rory, in this second in the series. A Louisiana native transplanted to a London boarding school, Rory behaves in a way that feels authentic. There are more than a few points in the book where I was mentally screaming at her to do something, anything other than what she was doing, but even when Rory’s making bad choices, you can see why she’s making them. She’s flawed but relatable, and you can’t help but be on her side, even when she’s royally fucking up.
So what else do I have to say about this book? It had that classic “recovering from the first book” feel, especially given the emphasis on therapy. I can understand if a lot of readers feel this book lags in the first half, but again, I don’t care; something about Johnson’s writing just calls to me, and the rip-roaring ending made up for any slowness. Plus it’s totally allowable to slow things down temporarily after the frenetic ending of the previous book. Our MC is in high school and just went through some truly traumatic events—it would be unrealistic to push ahead with the story any faster.
As the book moves toward the finish line, there’s a plot twist that I’ll admit I saw coming, but the execution and details of the surprise were still exciting and unexpected. As can be expected from Johnson’s other books, there isn’t so much a resolution at the end of this book as a pause and shift in the action, compelling us to reach for the next in the series. Cliffhangers are just something you have to deal with if you’re a Maureen Johnson fan.
I did also feel that the plot held together more cohesively than the first in the series. Leaving aside the aforementioned cliffhangers, the ends of both books struck me as a little bit off, like the reader is being expected to take a too much of a leap of faith, all at a breakneck pace. You can definitely leave both of these books with a dazed, what even just happened feeling. Yet the second book is an improvement on the first—not quite so manic, not quite so out-of-the-blue.
So overall The Madness Underneath was a crazy fun read (I mean, it’s not Truly Devious, but whatever…) and I’m looking forward to picking up the third book in the series.