Review: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson. Shades of London #2. Putnam Juvenile, 2013. Currently Available.

Genre: Mystery/Ghost Story

Face Value: This is a definite upgrade from the first book. While it doesn’t scream to me from the shelves, I think the ghostlike London silhouette is

madness underneathDoes it Break the Slate? Rory is going through a tough time in this book. It’s darker, and more internal than the first one in the series. But although it lacks some of the levity of the previous book, and Rory makes some seriously stupid choices during it, I still felt like The Madness Underneath broke some slates. Allowing our wonderful, funny, sharp heroine to go through depression and anxiety after a traumatic event is not only believable, it’s Slatebreaking. Rory isn’t a perfect hero, she’s an accidental hero who is taking on everything she can, as best as she can.

Who would we give it to? This is a sequel, so if you’re in the market for the first book, you’re probably in the market for this one. This is a great series for lovers of ghost stories, lovers of contemporary fiction and those of us who have always wanted to attend boarding school in London.

Review: I don’t review a lot of sequels on this blog, though I read a lot of sequels. My goal is to only review sequels when I have something new to add to my original review, given the content of the next book. At first I didn’t necessarily think I had a new review to write – my assessment of the smart, snarky writing, wonderfully relatable main character and terrific cast of supporting characters held up, even if I didn’t love this book quite as much as the first one. But I’ve read some reviews that found this second installment to be a serious disappointment, and that made me think more carefully about the things I liked in this one – not just as a continuation of the story that started in The Name of the Star, but in its own right.

The book starts a few weeks after the end of the first one. Rory is recovering from the Ripper’s attack with her parents in Bristol (a recovery made that much more difficult because she can’t share the full, ghost-filled story with everyone). She just wants to feel normal again. So when her therapist suggests a return to Wexford she jumps at the chance. But then once she gets there, it isn’t actually the same. She’s still dealing with her secrets and the emotional aftermath of the attack, and she’s barely keeping her head above water academically. And then things get crazy. Like, really crazy. By the end of this book, Rory has to make a really huge decision that might or might not be the right thing.

The second book in any trilogy is usually the weakest. It’s certainly the hardest to read because we don’t have the wonderful experience of learning about characters, setting and worlds and we don’t have the neat resolution of the first or third books. Where the first book is often self-contained, the second book can often be seen as set up for a major resolution in the third. This second book syndrome definitely has an impact on The Madness Underneath. It could never be read as a standalone, and it doesn’t resolve as satisfyingly as its predecessor. There’s less time spent with our supporting characters, and we spend a lot of time in the main character’s head (as she makes some terrible decisions). But also, Maureen Johnson does a great service to her character, and to her readers, by investing in the weight of Rory’s experiences and trauma. After being attacked by the Ripper, Rory is clearly suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress. She has to deal with that, as an individual, before the adventure can really move forward. She has her life with her parents, her life at Wexford and her life with the other ghost-hunters, and now she’s realizing that these lives may never be able to be reconciled. Even though it made for a more internalized story, I felt like this arc was important to the overall storytelling, and especially to Rory as its hero. She’s not an impervious superhero – she’s a normal human, thrust into something insane. By dealing with it, really dealing with it, I have to believe she’ll be stronger on the other end.

Some small details that I really appreciated, outside of the big picture:

  • The reality of teenage relationships, and the fact that Rory is allowed to like someone, but not necessarily want to be with him forever, and be confused about that
  • How stressful academic work can be, and how that is allowed to be important, even when other things are technically bigger, or more important
  •  The way the characters maintain their humor, even in terrible situations.
  • The fact that this book, though a second in a trilogy, is not just treading water to get to the resolution. Some major, unchangeable, potentially disastrous things happen, and I am really curious to see what happens next for these characters.

Reviewed from library copy.

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1 Response to Review: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

  1. bookishcomfort says:

    I ABSOLUTELY agree Sarah! In my review I tried to stress that while I enjoyed The Name of the Star more, and that Madness Underneath had a bit of slower pace for most of the book, that I didn’t really feel it was suffering from a “sophomore slump”, that everything in this book was intended by Johnson, and needed for Rory. Her reaction to attack was realistic and to be expected, and yes, she made some silly, questionable, and at times, dangerous choices, but you could see where she was coming from. A lot of reviews I’ve read have just been about being disappointed that it wasn’t as good as the first book, and while I was a bit disappointed at first too, upon sitting with the story I realized just how WELL Johnson plotted and wrote Rory’s story!! I CAN’T WAIT for the next book! I saw on Goodreads that there is a title now: The Shadow Cabinet. I love how Johnson makes the titles work perfectly with the story, so I’m interested in how the title will apply to book 3.

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