Disclaimer 1: Maureen gave me (and everyone who preordered this book) free stickers. I’m not saying this swayed my review, but I am saying that I’ve never openly disliked anything that left me with a pocketful of stickers
Disclaimer 2: This review contains spoilers for The Name of the Star. I repeat, if you have not yet read book 1 in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, turn back now. You have been warned.
At the beginning of The Madness Underneath, we find our Cheez Whiz-loving heroine, Rory Devereaux sitting across from a calm-faced Scottish therapist trying to run out the clock on her session without a) showing any real emotional vulnerability or b) betraying the fact that she occasionally has conversations with dead people. Because, as it turns out, when you move from the American South to a boarding school in London, develop the ability to see ghosts in an unfortunate dining hall accident, then get stalked and sliced up the middle by a deranged ghost who has spent the better part of the year terrorizing the city with copycat Jack the Ripper murders, therapy may just be the best place for you.
Rory is stuck with her parents in Bristol, far away from her friends at Wexford and unable to contact The Shades, the group of secret ghost-fighting police who have become her friends and protectors. To further complicate matters, Rory’s near-fatal run-in with a murderous ghost at the end of book 1 has left her with the strange and perplexing power to destroy ghosts with a single touch.
I’ve read a few of Maureen Johnson’s books, and while I’ve enjoyed them all, The Shades of London series has inspired in me a sort of frightening evangelical zeal. These books are so. good. For me, what sets this series apart is the sharp, funny narrative voice. Rory is a heroine brave enough to face down killers yet so hilariously and believably flawed that we can’t help relating to her and rooting for her. Maureen Johnson does a masterful job of balancing comedy and suspense, and each chapter is shot through with funny tangents and diversions, the sort of zany, odd humor that rings very familiar if you follow her on twitter. Especially hilarious were the stories about Rory’s family and neighbors in Louisiana, a cast of characters who fill the second floors of their homes with refrigerators, who start religions out of their garage, who go caroling on Halloween “to fight the devil” and who sometimes dress as Spiderman, climb statues, and chuck bread at passersby.
While this book is about ghosts and boarding school, it is also a book about a young person trying to rebuild a sense of self and return to everyday life after a serious trauma. Maureen Johnson does a subtle, skillful job of portraying a post-trauma Rory. We certainly recognize her as the same character from Book 1, yet she has been changed by what happened to her. She is scarred in ways not even she understands yet. There are the physical changes- the jagged scar up her abdomen, her strange new power to destroy the dead- but we also find her emotionally altered, detached from the realities of school and staring down unscalable walls in each of her relationships.
On a slightly tangential note, I also appreciated that Maureen Johnson, perhaps as a counterpoint to the “deranged” ghosts enacting violence on the living, wrote Stephen as a strong, successful character who is very frank about his mental illness and treatment.
The last few chapters of this book clip along at a dizzying pace then crash to a halt in a truly shattering cliff hanger. I definitely look forward to the next two installments in this series. When can I start offering Maureen Johnson my possessions via twitter in exchange for an ARC of book 3? Soon, I hope.
Follow Maureen Johnson on twitter here for more about her books and an almost constant stream of general strangeness in 140 characters.
1 Just kidding. Sometimes I joke, but my journalistic integrity remains intact. That said, if you have any stickers and you’re looking for someone to take them off your hands, send them to:
Tiny Boston Apartment without Living Room
Neighborhood with Too Many Dive Bars, MA