The Vanishing Stair

The Truly Devious case – an unsolved kidnapping and triple murder that rocked Ellingham Academy in 1936 – has consumed Stevie Bell for years. It’s the very reason she came to the academy. But then her classmate Hayes Major was murdered, and though she identified his killer, her parents quickly pull her out of school. For her safety, they say.

Stevie’s willing to do anything to get back to Ellingham, be with her friends, and solve the case. Even if it means making a deal with the despicable Senator Edward King. And when Stevie finally returns, she also returns to David: the guy she kissed, the guy who lied about his identity – Edward King’s son. But larger issues are at play. Was Hayes’s death really solved? Where did his murderer hide away to? What’s the meaning of the riddle Albert Ellingham left behind? And what, exactly, is at stake in the Truly Devious affair?

The Ellingham case isn’t just a piece of history – it’s a live wire into the present. The path to the truth has more twists and turns than Stevie can imagine, and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for. In New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson’s second novel in the Truly Devious series, someone will pay for the truth with their life.


This review will contain at least a few spoilers for Truly Devious. Sorry about that.

When I started reading Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series I sort of assumed it’d be like the Shades of London books – each new release a fresh mystery to unravel. Not so. Truly Devious and the mystery of Albert Ellingham’s missing daughter is the overarching theme of the series, and for every question The Vanishing Stair answered it raised at least three more.

I loved it, obviously.

At the end of the last book we saw our favourite wannabe detective, Stevie Bell, yanked from Ellingham Academy by her parents following the revelation of Hayes’s murderer. She is not okay with the situation. The Ellingham case remains unsolved and the whole Hayes affair at least somewhat unfinished. So when the opportunity to return comes up in the shape of a dodgy offer from the worst sort of Republican Senator Edward King – boss to Stevie’s parents and (surprise) father to Stevie’s on-again-off-again love interest David – despite her misgivings she’s prepared to do whatever he wants.

That particular decision looms large over everything else that happens in The Vanishing Stair.

I flew through this book. Continuing the split narrative of Stevie’s present divided by snapshots of the unfolding mystery in 1936 – the one Stevie came to Ellingham in the first place to solve before all the Hayes business – Maureen builds ever more layers of complexity onto a mystery that has already confounded everyone who has tried to solve it in the 80-odd years since it began. New and intriguing figures enter into play, from the possibly murderous runaway Ellingham students of the past, Francis Crane and Edward Pierce Davenport, to Dr Irene Fenton, the probably alcoholic true crime professor as eager to solve the Ellingham case as Stevie herself.

David continues to do the most. I’ve read several reviews where readers aren’t so keen on Stevie and David’s dynamic – some going as far as to describe it as insta-lovey and thin. I couldn’t disagree more. David and Stevie are pulled towards each other in a way that read electric to me – though they both remain defensive weirdos they can’t help but keep circling, each one taking turns to pull back in the other when they pull away. They share a similar sort of darkness, I think. It may not be the healthiest basis for a relationship, but for reading purposes it is delicious. Don’t believe the rumours: Stevie and David are a pairing you ship hard, however unlikely their resolution turning out to be a happy one is at this point.

A lot of pieces clicked into place during The Vanishing Stair, but there are a lot of questions still to be answered in the Hand on the Wall, and I for one cannot wait to see where Maureen Johnson’s twisting mystery takes us next.

Truly Devious

Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”

In 1936, shortly after the school opened, Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great crimes of American history. Something like that could never happen again, obviously…

Years later, true crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder.


Remotely situated boarding schools for the excellent – be that wizards, vampires or, in this case, geniuses – have always been one of my favourite literary escapes. So when Maureen Johnson, one of my forever faves, presented us with Ellingham Academy – a school with ‘…no application, no list of requirements, no instructions other than “If you would like to be considered for Ellingham Academy, please get in touch.”’ – I was totally in before I even read the first page.

Truly Devious is a murder mystery split into two separate timelines. There’s Stevie Bell, a new arrival at the school, true crime enthusiast and Sherlock Holmes-in-training at present day Ellingham Academy, sticking her nose into history to see what she can sniff out there, interspersed with chapters covering those shocking days of April 1936 when the course of Albert Ellingham’s life was thrown dramatically and tragically off course. The only thing both timelines have in common is that no one yet understands what on earth has gone on.

Stevie has lived all her life feeling like a misfit. From a politically conservative family – her parents even work for a local senator who is the unfortunate embodiment of Make America Great Again-ism – and a high school filled with kids she got on well enough with, but never felt especially connected to, she’s frustrated and desperate for a new chapter of her life to begin.

Yeah, Stevie. We can all relate.

The school is populated by the sort of colourful characters you might expect from an institution for the strange and genius – Janelle, an engineering superstar who was caught mending the toaster at 5 years old; Nate, the teenage author of a best-selling Game of Thrones-type series called The Moon Bright Cycles; Hayes Major, writer and star of The End of it All, a web series about a zombie apocalypse; and, finally, David. Oh, David. Constantly on the edge of expulsion, it’s unclear what David’s talent is besides disruption – of the school, and of Stevie’s general sense of wellbeing – but all I can say is you’re always glad he’s around. It’s Maureen Johnson we’re talking about, so you can’t guarantee a happy ending for the pair, but however it all turns out I am invested.

Like all Maureen’s books – has anyone else read her Shades of London series? I was obsessedTruly Devious is totally addictive. There is a sense of foreboding over the entire narrative, the weight of the unsolved murders Stevie is at the Academy to investigate, plus that of the murder the summary promises is coming. Who will it be?

I’m not going to give it away.

All I will say I was reaching for the sequel as soon as I could get my hands on it.

The Shadow Cabinet

Seventeen-year-old Rory’s life as she knows it is gone. Heartbroken, shaken and feeling more alone than ever, she can’t see how she can pick herself up and carry on as before. But something horrifying is stirring beneath London, and only Rory can stop it.

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By the beginning of The Shadow Cabinet, shit has really hit the fan. Callum is gone, Boo is running around the hospital trying to find the ghost of Stephen, meanwhile Rory stands vigil next to the body of Stephen wondering, among other things, what the hell happened to her life.

Maureen Johnson really knows how to keep a reader on their toes.

So, let’s review: after choking on some stew and getting the power to see ghosts, Rory is stalked and nearly murdered by ghost of Jack the Ripper-alike. Then, after being blown up by a terminus (a ghost gun, of sorts), she becomes one, meaning she can dispatch ghosts with a touch. While in therapy over all this, Rory’s therapist – who, as it turns out is the leader of a supernatural cult – tries to kidnap her to harness the power of the terminus for as yet unknown purposes. Stephen saves her, getting what turns out to be a fatal head wound in the process. And the night before Stephen died, he and Rory totally made out, finally.

If The Madness Underneath was about choices, then The Shadow Cabinet is all about consequences. Rory chose the ghost police over regular life. She got kicked out of Wexford then she ran away. There’s no turning back now. No contact with her parents, a new look to disguise her from the people who are looking from her (she’s a redhead now and I can only assume she looks great) and a new home with Thorpe, the creepy secret agent who turned out to be an okay guy.

The Shadow Cabinet is such an effective read because it’s a complete shake up of the status quo. All of the places and people Rory has spent her time with are gone now, along with any pretence that she’s going to have a normal life. Stephen, who has been the leader throughout is gone (at least for now) and the team have to figure out how to direct themselves without him. The thing simmering between him and Rory that was unspoken for so much of the first two books comes to the forefront. They’re in love, and Stephen being dead is only one of the things that makes their relationship complicated.

The supernatural landscape of London widens massively throughout this book – reality, as Rory has previously known it, is all but abandoned completely. In #3 we leave the muggles behind: ghosts get more complicated, the barriers between life and death get increasingly blurred and it turns out there are more secret ghost jobs than the ghost police.

All of which is to say… hopefully the final book will come out soon. Johnson has the first in a new series, Truly Devious coming out in January. Though I’m sure it’ll be great… I really would have preferred the final Shades book. I am way too invested in Rory and Stephen not to find out how it ends.

 

 

The Madness Underneath

Surviving a near fatal attack by a ghostly killer will leave its mark. Seventeen-year-old Rory Deveaux has painful scars and deadly new powers at her fingertips. But without her secret ghost-fighting squad she feels brutally alone. She’s lying to her boyfriend, failing in class and, worse still, Rory fears that a terrifying horror stalks the streets of London.

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Turns out you can’t just deal with the ghost of Fake Jack the Ripper and be done with the spirit hunting scene. The Madness Underneath, book #2 in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, finds Rory recuperating post-stabbing with her parents in Bristol (another British city, if you were wondering). After being pushed to sign the official secrets act in her hospital bed and removed from Wexford by her obviously traumatised parents, Rory has lost her only connections to her spiritual side: Stephen, Boo and Callum are incommunicado, and when – despite warnings not to from creepy government agents – Rory attempts to contact Stephen at his home, she finds that he, along with Callum and Boo, has vanished.

The first few chapters of The Madness Underneath have the feeling of 4 Privet Drive over the summer: nothing is going to happen until Rory goes back to boarding school. Which she does, weirdly, after the therapist she refuses to talk to decides to send her back to Wexford in a highly suspicious move.

#2 is a book of highly suspicious moves. But, honestly, when you’re trying to deal with the emotional trauma of your attempted murder by a ghost, as Rory is, you’re really too distracted by the simple tasks of getting through the day to worry about what your sketchy therapist(s) are up to.  

If I learned anything from this book, it’s to pay attention to what your sketchy therapist is up to.

The Madness Underneath retains all the best elements of The Name of the Star. Rory, though much changed from the beginning of the first book, continues to be witty and indomitably herself, even as she comes to terms with the crazy turn her life has taken. Johnson maintains the interjections of third person narrative, many of them even more gory and chilling than before. Despite a slight tonal change – I would say that the sequel is definitely darker – The Madness Underneath avoids all of the worst second book mistakes. The plot is pacey and has a strong sense of direction throughout, even when we’re unsure where, exactly, it’s taking us. I never once asked: why am I reading this? a question I regularly find myself pondering during book #2 of a YA series.

If the first book was part cute contemporary, part murder mystery then The Madness Underneath is emotional trauma with a side of how to avoid joining a cult.

We see the life at Wexford Rory had started to build slipping through her fingers. Her grades are bad, she’s lying to everyone and ghosts keep distracting her when she’s trying to make out with her boyfriend. I think we’ve all had the experience of feeling disconnected from our lives, like we are an audience member to our own fuck-ups, able to do nothing but sit and watch while the life we thought we wanted crashes and burns. At this point in the story, Rory is at a crossroads. She can either try and put the Ripper business behind her and get on with her life, or she can throw it all away and embrace the ghost hunter life completely.

Also, in book #2, Johnson takes the ships to the next level. Something I really appreciate in all Johnson’s books, is that the first guy is very rarely the guy. Though Jerome is cute and all, and maybe if Rory hadn’t choked on her dinner and developed the ability to see ghosts they would have worked out (though I doubt it), throughout the series so far Rory’s life has changed into a shape that Jerome simply doesn’t fit.

Stephen, on the other hand…

Oh, Stephen. Protective, but emotionally unavailable Stephen.

It is a truth of growing up that quite a lot of the people you spent your younger years with were just your friends/romantic partners because they were there. You had school in common, and when you’re a kid that is pretty much the entire world. Then something happens – maybe you get really into kayaking or socialism, or you develop the ability to see the dead – and suddenly a new influx of people enter your life who you bond with like you never have before.

This is why I love paranormal YA. Through all the insanity, there is a core relatability to the characters that draws me in every time.

So: We have ghost hunting, breakups, ships and creepy government agents who might actually be okay people. What more could you want? Other than book #3, obviously.

The Name of the Star

Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux flies to London for the start of a new life at boarding school. But her arrival is overshadowed by a sudden outbreak of brutal murders, gruesome crimes mimicking the horrific work of Jack the Ripper.

‘Rippermania’ grabs hold of London, and police are stumped with few leads and no witnesses. Except one. Rory has seen their prime suspect on the school grounds. But her friend Jazza didn’t see anyone.

So why could only Rory see him? And what is he planning to do next?

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If you read the news, you might be aware that we have not had a good few weeks here in the UK. We have pretty much been lurching from one disaster to the next without much in the way of breathing space.

A distraction read was definitely needed, and it was with that in mind that I turned to one of my faves: Maureen Johnson, one of my personal YA queens. Last week I binge reread the first three Shades of London books.

These books have everything you need for a good distraction.

  • Boarding school
  • Love triangle (emerging)
  • Ghosts (especially snarky ones who love The Smiths)

Really anything else is extra, but in The Name of the Star, Johnson spoils us. It’s half cute contemporary American girl in London story, half murdery ghost hunting thriller. All the elements fit together in a way that is seamless and compulsively readable.

Rory is a fantastic protagonist. She’s a New Orleans-ean (is that a thing?) figuring out the etiquette of Londoners and her newfound ability to see ghosts – and she manages it all while resisting trope-ish special snowflake behaviour. She brings with her from the US a cast of eccentric characters in the form of her family and friends back in Benouville (Ben-ah-VEEL, for the uninitiated), stories about whom Johnson uses masterfully for both comedic and dramatic effect (you wouldn’t think that a story about a guy with eight freezers could leave you feeling like someone grabbed your entire heart with their fist, but during The Name of the Star, you’ll learn that it can).

Despite a good chunk of the first book being dedicated to the non-ghost related friends Rory makes at boarding school (who are mostly plot devices for what comes later, but sweet and entertaining nevertheless), it’s a pacey read. The majority of the novel is first person and narrated by Rory, but the narrative is interspersed with third person chapters concerning people related to, but also outside of, the immediate plot – murder victims, computer hackers and journalists. It all works together to create the sense of the ‘Rippermania’ that grips the city, the fear and the obsession that is fascinating, sickening and unavoidable.

There is always something terrible happening somewhere. If you’re lucky, it’s somewhere else.

(Spoiler alert: Rory is kind of an unlucky person.)

And then Rory meets the ghost police. They are all – for somewhat tenuous reasons – teenagers, and working for the arm of the government even the government doesn’t know exists. Stephen Dene, Bhuvana ‘Boo’ Chaudhri and Callum (who I have just this second realised doesn’t have a surname? If I’m wrong about that please correct me) AKA the ghostbusters are the kind of supernatural team we all want to join. Callum, the angry, let’s ‘kill’ ‘em all soldier for justice against evil spirits; Boo, friend of the ghosts; and Stephen, the emotionally unavailable head of operations I couldn’t help but fall in love with.

This book has the right levels of teen crushes, slow burn romance, epic teamwork and bloody murder – which it is, btw. It’s about Jack the Ripper: there’s no such thing as sparing us the gory details.

The Shades of London is a refreshing series from a great and witty writer. It has something for everyone – whether you’re looking for a cute contemporary, a paranormal with a slow burn romance or a thriller so intense it’ll make your blood run cold.

Top Ten Tuesday: Halloween Special

‘Warning: You may have a huge, invisible spider living inside your skull. This is not a metaphor.

You will dismiss this as ridiculous fearmongering. Dismissing things as ridiculous fearmongering is, in fact, the first symptom of parasitic spider infection – the creature secretes a chemical into the brain to stimulate scepticism, in order to prevent you from seeking a cure. That’s just as well, since the “cure” involves learning what a chainsaw tastes like.’

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The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

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You know the story of Bluebeard, right? When he isn’t looking, his innocent new wife stumbles into the one room in their house he keeps locked – his make-shift tomb, filled with the bodies of his murdered lovers.

Moral of the story: If your new husband has a locked room in his house/ship that he’s weirdly evasive about, run away.

John Dies @ the End – David Wong

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I know I’ve mentioned this one before. But it’s one of my favourite books ever. It makes sense that it would come up a lot.

‘STOP

You should not have touched this book with your bare hands.

No, don’t put it down. It’s too late.

They’re watching you.

My name is David Wong. My best friend is John. Those names are fake. You might want to change yours. You may not want to know about the things you’ll read on those pages, about the sauce, about Korrock, about the invasion, and the future. But it’s too late. You touched the book. You’re in the game. You’re under the eye.

The only defense is knowledge. You need to read this book, to the end. Even the part with the bratwurst. Why? You just have to trust me.’

This was a random bookshop find for me. You get why I had to buy it, right?

This Book is Made of Spiders – David Wong

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‘Warning: You may have a huge, invisible spider living inside your skull. This is not a metaphor.

You will dismiss this as ridiculous fearmongering. Dismissing things as ridiculous fearmongering is, in fact, the first symptom of parasitic spider infection – the creature secretes a chemical into the brain to stimulate scepticism, in order to prevent you from seeking a cure. That’s just as well, since the “cure” involves learning what a chainsaw tastes like.’

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

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This book is a manifestation of all the Victorian fears around scientific and technological progress. Mary Shelley wants us to consider the idea that someone, somewhere has probably built a man from the parts of various dead men, and that he’s feeling pretty murderous about it.

Lot No. 249 – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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A student at Oxford University reanimates an ancient Egyptian mummy. It runs around the city murdering anyone it can get its hands on.

This story serves to answer the question we’ve all wondered: What are the weird noises we can hear in the flat upstairs? A reanimated ancient Egyptian mummy, of course.

Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime – Oscar Wilde

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During a dinner party at a friend’s house, Lord Arthur is informed by a famed psychic that it is his destiny to become a murderer.  Lord Arthur is horrified by the revelation, and resolves to get the awful deed out of the way as soon as possible in order than he can marry the woman he loves (it is not right, in his mind, to marry before so horrible but inevitable a task is completed). As such he sets about attempting to commit a murder. However, killing someone is not as simple a business as he would have imagined.

Until it is.

One night on his way home from work, Arthur sees the psychic who caused him all these problems leaning on a bridge, staring down into the water. One quick push later, Arthur has achieved his task and is now free to marry his girlfriend, Sybil.

Dracula – Bram Stoker

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A vampire invades London, frightening its men and corrupting the innocence of its good 19th century ladies.

Reading this book you can’t help but wonder if Bram Stoker’s real fear isn’t the monster he describes, but instead the possibility of female sexuality. When one of the female characters turns into a vampire she becomes an overtly sexual being. The men’s reaction? Cut her head off.

Grasshopper Jungle – Andrew Smith

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‘In the small town of Ealing, Iowa, Austin and his best friend Robby have accidentally unleashed an unstoppable army. An army of horny, hungry, six-foot-tall praying mantises that only want to do two things.

This is the truth. This is history.

It’s the end of the world.

And nobody knows anything about it.’

Warm Bodies – Isaac Marion

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In this book a zombie falls in love with a girl and gradually starts become human again. It’s one of the only zombie-related stories I have ever read.

It’s in this list because cute romance or not, the zombie apocalypse terrifies me. I have decided that were it to happen, I would rather go early. I would rather be a happy brainless zombie than live in that world as a human. This fatalistic attitude may have sprung from the fact that I live right down the road from a graveyard, so if the zombie apocalypse were to go down, I would be totally screwed.

The Name of the Star – Maureen Johnson

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This book is about ghosts. Specifically, the ghost of Jack the Ripper. You can imagine what he must be up to. It’s the job of Rory and her gang of ghost hunters to bring the murderer down. Hopefully for good, this time.