The Vanishing Stair: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

cover art for The Vanishing Stair by Maureen JohnsonEllingham Academy is a prestigious Vermont boarding school founded by eccentric billionaire Albert Ellingham. Its students are encouraged to think of learning as a game while pursuing their passions. Some of them come to the academy to write, others to create. That’s the one thing that binds the students together: “Everyone at Ellingham Academy had a thing.”

Stevie Bell’s thing is crime; specifically, solving the Ellingham case.

In 1936, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. Despite doing as the kidnappers asked and paying a ransom, Ellingham never reunited with his family. Iris’ body was soon found; Alice was never recovered.

The biggest clue in the case was the “Truly Devious” letter — an eerie poem reminiscent of Dorothy Parker that promised violence and maybe even death.

Stevie isn’t the first person to try to solve the case. But she has something no one else does: new evidence. It’s all contained in an old tea tin filled with “a bit of white feather, a bit of beaded cloth, a tarnished, gold-colored lipstick tube with the mummified remains of a red lipstick, a tiny enameled pillbox in the shape of a shoe, some pieces of notebook paper and black-and-white photographs, and the unfinished draft of a poem.”

Together, these “humble objects” are proof that the infamous Truly Devious letter may not have been tied to the case at all, but a student prank.

The problem is that Stevie’s parents pull her out of Ellingham mere weeks into her first term, after the death of another student, Hayes Major (whose murder Stevie tried to solve). Knowing what happened to Hayes, and knowing that another student was likely involved, Stevie senses missing pieces.

Was Hayes’ death an accident or something worse? And what happened to Ellie, the most likely suspect, after she disappeared through a passage before she could be interrogated?

Stevie isn’t sure how she can answer these questions without being at Ellingham — a problem remedied by the unlikely and unlikable Edward King, “the worst man in America” (and a thinly veiled imitation of Donald Trump), who offers Stevie the chance to return to Ellingham in exchange for keeping tabs on his son, David, who is finishing his last year there, ideally without impeding his father’s presidential aspirations.

It’s an impossible bargain, and Stevie knows she has to accept even if it means avoiding David and their mutual attraction. Knowing her time at Ellingham can end at any moment — especially since her presence seems to be doing very little to ground David — Stevie focuses on solving the case, which leads to shocking revelations about the school’s past in The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson.

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Maureen Johnson, a mystery lover and true-crime aficionado, imbues her heroine and this second installment of the Truly Devious series with that same love and respect for investigation. Stevie’s work isn’t glamorous, nor does it involve shortcuts. She knows she doesn’t “have all the answers,” but she isn’t afraid of the grunt work it takes “to find the lead, to find the single sentence in the single piece of paper that made you stand so suddenly that your head spun and then you’d know that you cracked the case.”

Stevie’s keen eye for investigation is tempered by real-world concerns like figuring out what her feelings for David mean and managing her anxiety with a combination of medication and other coping mechanisms. Stevie’s friends are quick to help, but she knows that her anxiety can manifest at any time since “anxiety and excitement are cousins: they can be mistaken for each other at points.”

The novel follows Stevie with a close-third-person narration. Trial transcripts and witness statements are interspersed throughout as Stevie delves deeper into the Ellingham case. Alongside her, readers follow the case to its surprising conclusion via chapters chronicling the varying perspectives of key players and witnesses.

While much of the Ellingham case is solved here, readers can expect a new mystery as Stevie is left to figure out how to reveal her findings — not to mention lingering questions over the school’s more recent spate of deaths. This series is a must-read for YA-mystery lovers, but be sure to start at the beginning with Truly Devious before diving into this one.

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Truly Devious: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stevie Bell had a simple desire: she wanted to be standing over a dead body.”

cover art for Truly Devious by Maureen JohnsonStevie Bell has two great passions: the study of crime in general and the Ellingham case specifically. She has read all the books, all the articles, and all of the case transcripts about the kidnapping of Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter. She knows the contents of the Truly Devious letter–the biggest clue in the case–by heart. She knows every facet of the case and she knows that she is going to be the person to solve.

That passion, that certainty, is what earns Stevie admission to the elusive and prestigious Ellingham Academy–a Vermont boarding school where learning is a game. In the school students can create, learn, and study their own passions whatever they may be. There are geniuses, novelists, artists, and more.

Stevie still thinks there’s a possibility that her admission might have been a mistake.

But she isn’t going to let that, or her anxiety, stop her from solving the Ellingham case–no matter how cold it may be. She just needs to get a handle on her new classes and her housemates. Except someone has other plans. When death returns to Ellingham Stevie finds herself at the center of a case that’s anything but cold in Truly Devious (2018) by Maureen Johnson.

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Truly Devious is the first book (and first act) in Johnson’s tightly plotted Truly Devious trilogy which continues in The Vanishing Stair. The story follows Stevie in close third person along with chapters interspersed throughout following key players in the Ellingham case as the kidnapping and failed ransom drop unfold.

Stevie’s knowledge of mystery conventions and true crime contrast well with her open bewilderment and naiveté when it comes to dealing with her classmates–especially David the mysterious prankster who is almost as annoying as he is attractive to Stevie.

When a student dies on campus, Stevie is drawn even deeper into Ellingham’s myriad secrets and discovers that there might be more to both cases than she initially thought. Evocative settings and an intricate plot are only somewhat impeded by poorly executed characterization with some behaviors that never quite hit the mark.

Truly Devious is an ode to classic boarding school mysteries. Recommended for true-crime enthusiasts, amateur detectives, and of course anyone who’s ever dreamed of finding a body in the library.

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, In the Hall With the Knife by Diana Peterfreund, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Life by Committee: A Review

lifebycommitteeIt isn’t Tabitha’s fault that her breasts are bigger now. It isn’t her fault that she likes wearing makeup as much as she likes reading margin notes in used books. It isn’t her fault that Joe seems to like talking to her more than he likes talking to his crazy-eccentric-special-snowflake girlfriend Sasha Cotton.

But it might be Tabitha’s fault when she kisses Joe. And when she does it again.

Normally, Tabitha would so not be that girl. But with the help of a website called Life by Committee, Tabitha starts doing a lot of things she wouldn’t normally do in the spirit of being more. At first sharing secrets and completing assignments to keep those secrets safe is easy. The assignments are empowering and push her limits.

When Tabby becomes more involved in the site, and the stakes get much higher, she has to decide how far she is willing to go, and who she is willing to hurt, to be more in Life by Committee (2014) by Corey Ann Haydu.

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Life by Committee is Haydu’s sophomore novel.

Tabitha is a great heroine. She struggles with a lot of things throughout Life by Committee. Obviously, there is the morality issue with cheating. But Tabitha is also trying to understand her place in a world where the rules are constantly changing not because of anything she has done but simply because of how she looks. (And sometimes not even that in the case of her changing home life.) The way Tabby, through Haydu’s prose, grapples with feminism and slut shaming and loneliness–problems she can’t always articulate, or even give a proper name–is shattering.

Tabitha is incredibly lonely at the start of the novel. She tries to reshape her life without the friends she had assumed were a given but it’s hard. Then Tabitha stumbles upon Life by Committee. LBC is an anonymous online community where users share secrets and complete assignments (more like dares) in the name of being more and leading their best lives. The wisdom in joining such a site is, of course, debatable. But Haydu does such an excellent job of bringing Tabitha and her hurt to life that it makes sense. Readers begin to understand how Tabitha might become this person who is completely consumed by people she has never met.

The great thing about Tabitha is that she knows exactly who she is and who she would like to be. When Tabitha gets involved with LBC, she starts to question a lot of the ideas she has about herself. Sometimes that leads to empowering moments. Unfortunately it also leads to some heart wrenching decisions that are so obviously Bad Ideas they become painful to read.

Those choices, the power and allure of LBC, are hard to understand at times. Unless you remember being that lonely high school (or college) student trying to find your way. Unless you remember the thrill that can come with telling everything that matters to someone who will never meet you, never be able to really judge you. Life by Committee captures that heady mix of connection and anonymity found on the Internet so very well.

Life by Committee also subtly highlights the pitfalls that can come from such a scenario. It’s wonderful to have friends online saying “yes!” to every risk you want to take. But without the context that comes from knowing a person in real life, it’s also difficult to ever adequately understand the consequences and the aftermath of those risks.

At the end of Life by Committee it’s safe to say that Tabitha comes out a little wiser and a lot stronger. Because this book is on the short side (304 pages hardcover) readers don’t get to see all of the payoff after Tabitha realizes she can find her own way, all by herself, but the development is there. The growth and the hint at something more–LBC-inspired or not–is there in the final pages.

Although she has her stumbling blocks, Tabitha remains a smart and capable heroine throughout. While she doesn’t always make the best decisions, she always learns. And that, really, is all anyone can hope for. Life by Committee is a shrewd, clever read that raises all of the right questions for its characters and readers. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anna Heltzel, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Undercover by Beth Kephart, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, In Real Life by Jessica Love, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, Kissing in America by Margo RabbThe Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith, Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker

*A review copy of this book was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2014*