Review: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

Review: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

I was in the unusual position of holding all the cards. I had to decide what to do, and only I could do it. And I was going to do it. I had faced frightening things before and had been powerless. But not this time.

Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star was a real surprise for me in 2011. It had a bit of everything--mystery, paranormal, romance, humor--and it all came together in quickly-paced, gripping read.

The long-awaited sequel, The Madness Underneath, continues in the same vein, but amps up the over-arching intrigue factor, building the overarching mystery that began in the first Shades of London novel.

Note: the rest of review contains mild spoilers for the previous book in the series. If you want to remain wholly unspoiled about The Name of the Star and are curious about starting reading this series, please read Sandra's spoiler-free review of that book

The Madness Underneath revisits Rory, a Louisiana native in England who survived a run-in with the ghost of Jack the Ripper in the first novel, but was also profoundly transformed--in a very literal way. She's now a terminus, a human who can vanquish ghosts on contact. Her background means that she's mostly unflappable, even to her weird circumstances.

It’s possible that I have a higher tolerance for crazy talk than most people because of my background. I’ve channeled multicolored angels with my cousin and gone for discount waxes with my grandmother. I know two people who have started their own religions. One of my neighbors was arrested for sitting on top of the town equestrian statue dressed as SpiderMan. He just climbed up there with a few loaves of bread and tore them up and threw bread at anyone who got near him. Another neighbor puts up her Christmas decorations in August and goes caroling on Halloween to “fight the devil with song.”

Rory finds herself back in London after her parents sequestered her away in Bristol. She's rejoined her classmates at Wexford, the boarding school she left after her incident with the aforementioned ghost. Understandably, Rory has a difficult time adjusting, especially since her friends from the ghost catching squad (I call them the Ghost Busters in my head, but they're actually called The Shades), Stephen, Callum and Boo, seem to be missing. She's alone with her weird ability.

You cannot tell your therapist you have been stabbed by a ghost. You cannot tell her that you could see the ghost because you developed the ability to see dead people after choking on some beef at dinner. If you say any of that, they will put you in a sack and take you to a room walled in bouncy rubber and you will never be allowed to touch scissors again.

Rory can't seem to escape creepy, possibly paranormal goings on, as a string of mysterious deaths around Rory's school mean that she's got to find her Ghost Buster friends and convince them to her help stop the killings before it's too late. Amidst this excitement, Rory tries to date her love interest from The Name of the Star, Jerome, finds a weird counselor who may not be what she seams and struggles through school.

Plot-wise, The Madness Underneath really clarified the Shades of London series.

Like Sandra, I didn't realize the first book was the start to a series and read it as a standalone right up to the suspense-filled end when I realized there was far more to Rory's story than could be contained in a single book. With that said, there were a number of directions the series could have headed following the first book's set-up, and Maureen definitely sent Rory and her friends down a tough, tough path. In fact, I think maybe she's been spending too much time with Sarah Rees Brennan. While it doesn't end in a cliffhanger, The Madness Underneath definitely left me eager for the sequel and shocked at what these characters faced. 

However, because of the big, action-packed final third of the book, the first half or so packs in a lot of set-up as new characters and situations are introduced so the pacing reads as a bit inconsistent when contrasted with both the first book and the end of this one. On one hand, these situations--such as Rory's attempts at dating--do a lot to reveal more about the characters, but I found myself wanting to rush to the action. 

The waiter futzed around us, moving our bread basket and hovering pointlessly, demanding updates on our enjoyment levels while we had mouthfuls of food. If dates were like this, then dates were kind of weird. I felt like every move I made was being watched. I think Jerome felt equally uncomfortable, so we skipped dessert, paid up, and decided to take a walk around the market.

Fortunately, Rory's snarky, self-deprecating first-person narration held my attention even as the story lagged a bit. 

Rory's point of view is what sets this series apart from other paranormal young adult stories. For example...

Rory on the notion of "Romantic."

(Also, for the record, if someone is called a Romantic, it should mean some sexy times, I think. Instead, what it really means is people in puffy shirts who probably had a lot of real-life sexytimes, but produced almost exclusively pictures of hillsides or people in dramatic poses, like pretending to be Ophelia dead in a swamp. I definitely call shenanigans on this.)

Rory on spicy foodstuffs.

Spicy food and I have a close relationship—an obsessive one, in fact. If it’s spicy, I want it. I want to sweat and shake and go half blind from the searing pain . . . which, now that I put it that way, seems really suggestive. But spicy stuff is addictive. That’s a known fact of science.

Rory on disfiguring scars.

“Actually,” I said, lowering my shirt, “I’ve seen worse scars. I told you about the time my grandma got a questionable boob job in Baton Rouge a few years ago?”
“No?”
“She got the boob job because she had a coupon for it. Twenty percent off. She had a surgery coupon. She got her boobs on sale. Those scars were worse.”

And, of course, Rory on Physical Education.

I like to talk. Talking is kind of my thing. If talking had been a sport option at Wexford, I would have been captain. But sports always have to involve running, jumping, or swinging your arms around. You don’t get PE points for the smooth and rapid movement of the jaw.

Whenever I read YA, I find myself wishing for more humor. Sure, angst and real problems are core tenets of teen literature, but being a teenager is also kind of hilarious and seems ripe for a bit of humor. So while the main focus of the Shades of London series is the mystery and ghost hunting, my big takeaway from both of the books in this series has been the good humor that pervades the pages of Rory's story. 

However, it's not all fun and games and jokes about crazy relatives.

The stakes are far higher for the ghost busting crew by the end of The Madness Underneath. Like The Name of the Star, this book is a complete story, but the end sets up Very Big and Possibly Life-Altering set of circumstances. Rory's relationships transform dramatically, including the introduction of another possible love interest. Characters other than Rory also face these Big Challenges, and as a result we learn a lot more about Rory.

If you're a reader who can't handle that sort of suspense, you may want to hold off until the final book in the series is published (there's no release date or title), because even I--who's generally pretty chilled about waiting for sequels--am feeling pretty impatient for the next book. 

In the end, my relationship with The Madness Underneath will be decided once I know how it fits into the overall trilogy. It's a solid installment, but I read it differently than The Name of the Star because I knew that there's a lot more story to come. Regardless, this is a strong paranormal YA that's really bolstered by a suspenseful and creative mystery and a narrator I dare you not to love.

The Madness Underneath releases on Feb. 26, 2013

FNL Character Rating: Pending, awaiting the final book in the series; Tyra potential.
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Review our review of the first book in the series, The Name of the Star.

Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.

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