I really like Maureen Johnson. I mean, I suppose I even like her as a person even though I’ve never met her. She’s close friends with John Green (one of my top five favorite authors) and I can just picture them hanging out, drinking coffee, and saying witty things to one another.
Despite my feelings, I’ve only read three of her books and a short story she’s written. I feel like I need to fix that (And I am—another one of her books is on my “to read” shelf at home), but this is a review of the one I just finished: The Madness Underneath—the second book in the Shades Of London series.
This book takes place days after the first book ended. Rory, our narrator, is recovering from almost being killed by a ghost in the last book. She is bored and lonely, stuck at her parents’ home and longing to return to Wexford. Her near-death experience has left her with a “super power” of her own that she must come to terms with. After returning to school, her friends, and her boyfriend, things start to pick up for Rory. She relocates her non-school friends (Callum, Boo, and Stephen) who are members of a secret ghost police. Life seems to be returning to normal. However, Rory is soon confronted with a weird new therapist and the possibility of being kicked out of school. All the while, a crack running through her campus and the nearby streets seems to be leaking ghosts from an insane asylum.
I suppose that I should mention that I was reading this book on my iPad. Normally, I don’t think that matters, but here I need to bring it up. One of the things I love about real books is that I can visually see how much of the book I have left. I can flip through the pages, keep a count going, see where different sections begin, and whatnot. On my iBooks, sure there’s like a page count (x pages out of y) going on at the bottom, but that involves math. This book was different. This book, the pages kept flying by and I didn’t even want to stop and see how much I had left.
The ending just snuck up on me. I was reading along, the story was getting intense, and then bam! Ending. Johnson totally left us on a cliffhanger, and I only find this annoying because I have no idea when the next book comes out.
I think this is a strength of the book. I liked that I was just enjoying the story so much that I never really felt compelled to take the time and see how much of the book was left. Sure, half the time I was yelling at Rory in my head. Shouting, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” But it was good.
I think that Johnson has a really great storytelling ability. You might think all writers do, but I don’t. Rory is a (almost stereotypical southern girl) talker. She mentions how she can bore her school friends to death if she needs to. However, the narrative is tight. Any wandering stories that pop-up from Rory about her family or hometown all come back to the plot at large. It’s a great way of giving us backstory on Rory and keeps the story flowing.
One of the things that bugged me was that it felt like this book was divided in half when examined from a plotting perspective. The first half focuses on this crack and how there’s a possibility of ghosts escaping from it and killing people. The other half of the book is devoted to Rory’s therapist and her influences over Rory and the repercussions. I get what’s going on—Johnson is setting up the next book, and that’s great—but it still leaves this reader, I don’t know, wanting a bit more. Another review I read mentioned that the crack problem seemed to be solved rather quickly and is now over and done, but I’m inclined to disagree. I’m hoping that the crack and the other issue (featuring Rory’s therapist, Jane) both come to a head in the next installment.
I will warn you, the ending might really upset some readers, but in a tweet Johnson said, “A tweet to all of you who got to the THING in the new book and need SUPPORT: I promise you, from great sorrow comes GREAT JOY.” Now (and I’m totally speculating here) I’m thinking this is in response to the ending. Why? Because I don’t think anything else in the book could possibly upset readers as much.
I have this theory, in a trilogy, that the middle book usually acts as a bridge book between the first book (whose job it is to hook us and establish the main characters) and the last book (whose job it is to give us a plot that’s just as exciting as the first book—if not more so—and a satisfactory resolution with the characters). Sometimes, this isn’t the case. Off the top of my head, I think a great example is the book A Million Suns by Beth Revis (second in the Across the Universe Trilogy) does a bang-up job of acting both as a strong second book and a bridge book. Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games, is a bridge book as well. Yes, it has it’s own central plot (the Quarter Quell) but it really sets the third book up. Like this, I think that The Madness Underneath is a fairly strong bridge book.
Overall, I think this is a series worth reading (I can’t really recommend the second and not the first). Johnson does a fantastic job with both the setting (London) and the characters. The Madness Underneath is a book I would recommend people put on their “to read” lists.