Tag Archives: maureen johnson

The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

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.

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

Last year’s Truly Devious wasn’t just fantastic in its own right, but also introduced me to Maureen Johnson. I read two more of her books in short order, then was left to ache for the Truly Devious sequel. Well, Stevie, our lovable, smart, anxiety-suffering protagonist is back and better than ever for the 384 pages we’re allowed with her. The book is great, as can only be expected, but heed my warning: The Vanishing Stair is only a temporary cure for Truly Devious-itis, since Johnson leaves readers with another massive cliffhanger at the end.

First things first, massive thanks to Johnson for the way she seeded the introductory chapters of the book with character and plot details from its predecessor. Before I started reading, I searched online for a full book synopsis for Truly Devious to get up to speed, but came up with nothing, so I ended up just throwing my hands up and diving right in. If you are in the same boat, fear not; you won’t feel lost if you read the first book last year.

I do want to touch on one thing which I… honestly hesitate to bring up, but what the hell, here goes nothing. I read books to get away from the world. The best kinds of books are transportive—there’s a real kind of magic to words that guide you to conjure characters, places, and scenes in your mind. In my opinion, this is what distinguishes books from other forms of media like TV and movies, which feed you pictures and audio filtered through a director’s lens. With books, the author lays all the groundwork, but the reader is ultimately the director.

That’s why I hate when things drag me out of an engrossing story—things like clunky verbiage, out-of-character decision-making, and preposterous plot twists. The Vanishing Stair suffers from none of the aforementioned literary crimes, but there are definitely a few instances when Johnson includes some politically-tinged language that instantly rocketed me out of the book. (And please understand that I am NOT bringing this up in regards to the Edward King politician character, since he’s an integral part of the story.) For better or worse,  we live in a time where it feels like politics consume all, and it is exhausting and annoying to be reading and reach a sentence that randomly throws in something about “the patriarchy.” One of many reasons I love reading is that books get me away from all that.

She was second in command to Charles, which seemed unlikely, until you remembered that Charles was a guy. Even at Ellingham, the patriarchy reared its shaggy head.

This book is binge-worthy, but unnecessary political language like the above quote keep it from being a five-star read—NOT because of the author’s political beliefs, but simply because the book shouldn’t need to get political at all, as this is not Twitter, but rather a YA whodunnit. I don’t care whether the author is on the left or right side of the aisle—unless your book has a specific political thread (political thriller, MC is a political activist, etc.) understand that you are potentially alienating a potential audience, dating your book, and, worst of all, weakening the story. What need is there for politically-tinged details in a cozy mystery? None, as far as I’m concerned.

But the above complaint aside, this was a very enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys boarding school stories, the perfect amount of witty dialogue, and a twisting, well-constructed mystery.