Memories of a Ghost: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

The Madness UnderneathPublished: February 26th, 2013
Publisher: Brilliance Audio, Inc.
Genre(s): Young Adult, Mystery, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 7 hrs and 53 mins

The Name of The Star, the first book in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, ends with the main character, Rory Devereaux, discovering new powers that may change everything about her relationship to the spirit world. It’s an exciting end to an intense book, and it definitely sets up potential new storylines for what felt like a fairly self-contained story.

Johnson has publicly stated that she has a total of four books planned for the series, so The Madness Underneath needs to both follow-up on the first book and set up enough threads to make books three and four worth reading. With all that on order, does it deliver? The short answer is: kind of.

The Madness Underneath picks up a few weeks later as Rory is living with her parents and recovering from her ordeal. She’s been going to a therapist, which she hates because she isn’t allowed to actually talk about the truth. The government has covered up what actually happened with the Jack the Ripper copycat from the first book and nobody would believe her if she told them the truth in any case. Rory mostly just wants to return to Wexford to be with her friends and maybe get back in touch with Stephen and the rest of his ghost-hunting squad.

When Rory accidentally exorcises a ghost with her new powers, it doesn’t take long before she’s back at Wexford and under the watchful eye of the government’s secret paranormal squad. At this point it would be safe to assume that the main mystery plot would get underway, but instead the book largely focuses on Rory’s PTSD. She’s way behind in school and can’t work up the urge to get caught up. She’s dating Jerome but she’s no longer sure why. Eventually Rory goes to a new therapist after Charlotte, her overachiever classmate, gushes about how much the therapist helped, but the mystery plot remains elusive throughout.

Rory does eventually have to use her talents to exorcise some more ghosts, but those exorcisms never amount to a major story thread. By giving Rory the ability to banish any ghosts with a touch, Johnson has made it so that no ghost like the Ripper could ever threaten her again. The problem with that is that it means Rory needs a new, more serious threat to fight against, and for most of the book the only threat is her depression and general lack of direction. It doesn’t make for very compelling reading.

Ultimately the book just felt like a transition. Rory deals with her PTSD, deals with Wexford and then gets a reason and a purpose to pursue in the next book. The book ends on a cliffhanger that leaves a few major threads unresolved, and although I probably will continue reading the series, I’m disappointed that this installment doesn’t have enough to recommend it and make it stand alone.

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Goo Book by Keith Ridgway

From the April 11, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

Goo Book tells the story of a pickpocket and occasional driver for a mysterious man named Mishazzo. Mishazzo is a businessman of sorts, terse and intense. He has his driver take him all around London, sometimes for business deals, and sometimes for what seem to be intimidations or even assaults. The driver does not quite know what it is that Mishazzo does, he only knows that he may be dangerous.

When the story opens, the main character spends most of his time smoking pot with his girlfriend while sitting on the banks of a canal or stealing wallets from tourists. They have a strange, complex relationship; instead of talking about their feelings, they leave notes in a notebook back and forth. It lets them say the words they could never say aloud, and communicate the thoughts they might otherwise keep secret.

When he gets the chance to do more driving for Mishazzo, things seem to be going well until he is picked up by the police one day. The police tell the main character that they want information on Mishazzo – where he goes, who he talks to, dates, times, everything – and in return they won’t send him to prison for theft. He acquiesces because he has no other choice, and things slowly but surely start going bad.

Goo Book is told in spare, measured prose, almost entirely free of description. It is filled with a slow-burning intensity that builds as the main character’s situation becomes more dangerous. In a way it felt like a reversal of most crime stories I’ve read, which tend to have forceful main characters that fill every page with their personalities; here the main character and his girlfriend are practically ciphers, carefully hidden from view for most of the story. We only really get a peek into the main character’s feelings at the very end, when his paranoia reaches a fever-pitch and he makes a split-second decision whose repercussions hit him like a sledgehammer.

Overall I liked this story; it has a fairly simple plot, but the style drew me in, and the heart of the story is the character’s odd relationship with his girlfriend. It seems held together by the notebook where they write notes back and forth. It’s almost as though their feelings don’t truly exist if they aren’t written down in the book, and that writing them down is the only way that a man so compartmentalized could truly communicate.