Serena’s Review: “The Vanishing Stair”

Book: “The Vanishing Stair” by Maureen Johnson

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, January 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Just as Stevie feels she’s on the cusp of putting it together, her parents pull her out of Ellingham academy.

For her own safety they say. She must move past this obsession with crime. Now that Stevie’s away from the school of topiaries and secret tunnels, and her strange and endearing friends, she begins to feel disconnected from the rest of the world. At least she won’t have to see David anymore. David, who she kissed. David, who lied to her about his identity—son of despised politician Edward King. Then King himself arrives at her house to offer a deal: He will bring Stevie back to Ellingham immediately. In return, she must play nice with David. King is in the midst of a campaign and can’t afford his son stirring up trouble. If Stevie’s at school, David will stay put.

The tantalizing riddles behind the Ellingham murders are still waiting to be unraveled, and Stevie knows she’s so close. But the path to the truth has more twists and turns than she can imagine—and moving forward involves hurting someone she cares for.

Previously Reviewed: “Truly, Devious”

Review: While I do enjoy mystery novels, they’re typically of the historical mystery variant. That or adult forensic crime stories, ala the “Temperance Brennan” series and such. That being the case, “Truly, Devious,” a YA mystery was a new thing for me. I listened to it as an audiobook and ended up really enjoying it, even if I was able to predict a few of the twists and turns. And then…it ended on a cliffhanger. It took me a bit, but now I’m finally back to see what mysteries will be revealed here! Spoiler alert: not enough.

Things have not gone to plan. After Stevie pinned so many hopes on attempting to solve the mysteries at the heart of Ellingham academy, her parents pull her away. But all is not lost when David’s father, the reviled Edward King, arrives with a proposition: Stevie returns to Ellingham in order to placate his troublesome son. Stevie’s parents, big supporters and donators to King’s causes, are willing enough to agree to this and thus Stevie returns. But all is not right at Ellingham and the prices keep going up on the bars for entrance into the academy’s dark past.

I’m going to get this out of the way, I had a lot of problems with this book. I can essentially put them in two categories, however: problems I had with this book in general and problems that might be simply due to me being a 30-something woman reading a YA mystery novel. That being the case, take much of this with a grain of salt, especially if you’re a young adult who loves this type of book and series.

Because, yes, there are still some really solid things about it. Stevie herself is an interesting leading lady. The author excels especially at the portrayal of Stevie’s anxiety and how it affects her day-t0-day life. I thought this topic was handled in such an important, normalizing way, addressing the real challenges posed to those who live with anxiety like this. Most importantly, while Stevie lives with anxiety, it doesn’t define her and the book never treats it as some sort of shameful flaw. It’s all very well-done, and I think sends a powerful message to readers who also live with anxiety.

I also like the underlying mystery at the heart of the story. But this is also where I get into one of my biggest problems with this book, and one that I think I would have regardless of my age reading it. The Ellingham murder/disappearance story is so captivating that it starts to wash-out the events happening in the current setting of the story. What’s more, we again get very, very few answers and end on yet another cliffhanger. I don’t think there is anything in this book, or in this bigger mystery itself, that justified this being a trilogy rather than a duology. By doing this, every aspect of the book feels stretched thing and watered down. It’s the epitome of “second book syndrome.”

On top of that, by choosing to end on yet another cliffhanger, the author has lost all goodwill from me. One is bad enough, but a second just makes me start to feel like I’m being inexpertly manipulated. Had there been more substantial reveals or revelations offered up in the story as a whole, perhaps I would be more forgiving of this choice. As it is, it feels like a weak attempt to forcibly capture an audience and maneuver them into sticking around using a “sunk cost” approach: you’ve already read two entire books without really getting anywhere, gotta read the last!

I personally also struggled with the characters in this book. In the first story, we meet Stevie and the other odd characters who make up the student body at the school. By splitting that story between these necessary introductions, plus the small mystery at the heart of that book and the ongoing Ellingham mysteries, we never got much more than the broadest strokes of these other characters there. So I had expected to see more depth add to them in this second book. But no, they all still felt pretty one-dimensional. That said, again, I’m not the target audience for this book, so others may find more value in these characters than I did.

Ultimately, I was pretty disappointed by this book. I had really hoped for more and finished the last page firmly believing that this entire book was necessary to the story. Of course, I haven’t read the third one, but I have to imagine that things could have been neatly covered in a duology rather than a trilogy. I’m especially frustrated with the cliffhanger and lack of answers to the cold case of Ellingham. I’m not sure I’ll continue on, honestly. We’ll see how my mood takes me in the future!

Rating 6: A solid “second book” in the worst ways, but I’m also not the target audience for this, so take my rating with that in mind.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Vanishing Stair” is also on these Goodreads lists: 2019 YA Mystery/Thrillers and YA Murder Mysteries.

Find “The Vanishing Stair” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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