Friday Reads: Maureen Johnson's "The Name of the Star" and "The Madness Underneath" (With a Side of "Let's Pretend This Never Happened")

Longest blog post title ever? Possibly. The thing is, I had intended to only write about The Name of the Star and The Madness Underneath. But then something unexpected happened: I didn't like The Madness Underneath nearly as much as I had expected to. To be clear, I didn't dislike it. But I didn't love it enough to gush about it for paragraphs and paragraphs.

Let me back up.

The Madness Underneath is the second in Maureen Johnson's YA ghost mystery series "Shades of London." The first, The Name of the Star, is about a modern-day Jack the Ripper who turns out to be a ghost, and an American boarding school student in London named Rory who, due to a near-death incident, can suddenly see ghosts. This book was SO. GOOD. Even upon reread, I found it suspenseful and thrilling and creepy. Rory is a great character, sassy and sarcastic and Southern, a fish-out-of-water not just in London, but also in her new ghost-seeing and ghost-hunting capacity. The twist at the end—which I won't spoil except to say that Rory suddenly becomes MUCH more important in the ghost-fighting realm than she was previously—was perfect. Just enough of a tease to the next book, without feeling like an unsatisfying cliffhanger.

Shades 1 and 2

So at the beginning of The Madness Underneath, everything's set up for a great sequel. Rory is recovering and reeling from the fallout of the Ripper case. The book opens with a new, similarly creepy ghost-murder. You know (from the jacket copy and from having read books before) that even though Rory starts the book in Bristol with her parents, she'll soon be back in the thick of things in London, where the action happens. But then...

Well, in a nutshell, my problem with The Madness Underneath was that it was all "middle." Johnson set up an interesting new ghost story...and didn't get very deep into it. She set up new character dynamics...and didn't get far in exploring them. Most of the ACTION in this book happens in the last few chapters, from the proper introduction of the series' new villain (whose motivations I am still a little blurry on) to the end of one romance and start of another. There's a kidnapping and a car accident and a heartbreaking hospitalization, and Rory gets put to the test...and then it's the end of the book. I understand needing to set up events for Book Three, but in this case, I felt like Book Two just didn't have enough meat. It didn't have an arc of its own. We didn't spend enough time with the villain or the ghosts who give the book its title. It felt like setup, setup, setup, setup, cliffhanger.

So, while I will certainly read Book Three, hoping for a return to the brilliance of The Name of the Star, I have to confess that The Madness Underneath, by itself, didn't wow me. Too much "middle." I closed the book feeling vaguely disgruntled. (Not cliffhanger-shocked, or sad, or even properly upset—just "meh.") And that was a bummer.

So I picked up Jenny Lawson's humorous memoir Let's Pretend This Never Happened, hoping for an antidote to the "meh." I'm about halfway through as of this writing, and so far it's living up to the hype. Lawson's online alter ego is The Bloggess. I'm not an avid reader of her blog, but I stop by from time to time. Some things she's written have made me laugh to the point of tears. And while I haven't cry-laughed reading her book yet, I've definitely laugh-laughed. Snorted a few times.

I love the mouse on this cover so much...

Oddly enough, certain moments in the chapters about her childhood remind me of A Girl Named Zippy (some thoughts on that book here). There's that sense, as a child, that your childhood is normal because you don't know anything else—and then the realization, years later, that not everyone grew up with the kind of craziness you endured. For Lawson, it's having a dad who's a taxidermist, whose idea of a great joke to play on your daughters is to gut a roadkill squirrel and use it as a hand puppet. It's drinking possibly poisoned well water because that's what you've got, and having turkeys (that your dad insists on calling quail) follow you to school. I don't want to spoil any more of the stories, because they're better when they unfold in her own rambling words, but it's funny stuff.

I've just reached the point where she meets her future husband, so I'm eager to see where the book goes in her adult life! I know from reading her blog that Lawson struggles with depression and anxiety, and yet writes about those issues with humor and sarcasm. I'm expecting laughter through pain, a profane and inappropriate and offbeat sense of humor, and some genuinely great stories.

What's everyone else reading this week? Any recommendations?