Book Review: The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson

October 12, 2011 at 11:04 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Rippermania has gripped London in the wake of a series of brutal murders emulating one of the most famous unsolved crimes of all time, and not even the labyrinthine system of CCTV through London’s streets can capture the killer. Into the middle of this walks Rory Deveaux, a Louisiana teenager bound for the boarding school of Wexford- right in the middle of Jack the Ripper territory- while her parents take a year’s sabbatical to teach in Bristol. She just doesn’t realize that middle? Really does mean middle. Soon she’s the only witness to actually see the murderer and she’s going to have to trust some people with a pretty bizarre story, or she’ll end up as a new victim.

Have you ever read a book that had you simulataneously on the edge of your seat with suspense and falling off of it with laughter? After you read this book, you can honestly say you have.

For anyone who follows the incomparable Maureen Johnson on Twitter, the humor is hardly unexpected, and what we get is classic. Between her tales of small-town Louisiana and the way she meets the Head Girl- dancing on a table in front of a mirror in partial uniform- Rory is an absolutely hysterical narrator. Within the narration it’s effortless, but every now and then in the dialogue it tries a little too hard and falls flat- which is perfect for the situations of the time. She’s resourceful and clever with a wide pragmatic streak, but she also has an openness that allows for the impossible. Not to say there won’t be some sputtering about the impossible, but she adapts pretty quickly.

Rory’s a new girl in London, which lets Johnson teach her American readers without an info dump. Because it’s new for Rory, it’s okay that it’s new for us. It’s not a tutorial, it’s not a lecture, it’s a “hey, here’s a new experience!”. From juggling classes to remembering which side of a car to climb into, we get to shall all those new things with Rory, which helps reinforce her Lousisiana background. Guaranteed, no one in London worries about gators in the backyard. Her entry into the school, the way she has to adapt to the completely different classes and class schedules, even the way she’s always colder than everyone else, all contributes to this new world of hers, one that is excellently crafted and rich with atmosphere.

What initially drew me to this book was the Jack the Ripper storyline. I love Criminal Minds, I’ve done research projects on serial killers in general and on the Ripper specifically, and I’m one of those people who finds the whole notion disturbingly fascinating. Jack the Ripper is a part of our popular culture, so the notion of someone coming along and exactly replicating his crimes is both terrifying and amazing. Add in all the Ripper-experts and the expectation- almost the sense of macabre excitement- that comes of waiting for the next kill and you have a chaotically charged atmosphere where any number of things can happen. The two storylines comes together gradually, weaving into a single thread that suddenly rushes forward and doesn’t slow until the very end.

The characters are gorgeously crafted. Rory, of course, is vibrant and larger than life, but the connections she makes are very real. Her roommate Jazz and her rivalry with Charlotte, the boy she may or may not be dating but certainly has something with, Alistair the moody boy in the library, and of course a trio of people, secretive in different ways, who mean to keep an eye on Rory. Don’t want to give away too much about them, but seriously? LOVE THEM. I just wish, these and the school friends included, that I could have known them a little better. There’s a bit of reserve there- unsurprising if you think about it- but it feels like surface friendship, hanging out with people because it’s better than not having any friends at all. There’s more to them than neurotic attention to school work and Ripper expertise, but I never really got to feel like I saw that.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the refreshingly original take on the paranormal. NO, there are no vampires or werewolves, but there are ghosts, with very interesting stories to tell. They interact with the world in peculiar ways, ways as unique and telling as the people they were in life, but they’re all around us. Sometimes they’re strong, sometimes resigned, sometimes confused, sometimes mischievous, but they interact with us in ways we try to ascribe to other things. Most of all, they’re important.

This book makes you gasp, makes you keep a finger under the next page so you don’t lose even a second turning it, laugh out loud (pages 166 and 167 made me snort soda, I laughed so unexpectedly), and more than anything, makes you want the next book in the Shades of London series.

Want more Maureen Johnson? Check her out on Twitter (@maureenjohnson) or at her website.

Until next time~

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