The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
Published: September 29th, 2011 by Putnam Juvenile
Genre(s): Young adult, paranormal, mystery
Pages: 372 pgs.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
The day Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives in London marks a memorable occasion. For Rory, it’s the start of a new life at a London boarding school. But for many, this will be remembered as the day a series of brutal murders broke out across the city, gruesome crimes mimicking the horrific Jack the Ripper events of more than a century ago.
Soon “Rippermania” takes hold of modern-day London, and the police are left with few leads and no witnesses. Except one. Rory spotted the man police believe to be the prime suspect. But she is the only one who saw him. Even her roommate, who was walking with her at the time, didn’t notice the mysterious man. So why can only Rory see him? And more urgently, why has Rory become his next target? In this edge-of-your-seat thriller, full of suspense, humor, and romance, Rory will learn the truth about the secret ghost police of London and discover her own shocking abilities.
Only once before I have I read one of Maureen Johnson’s novels: 13 Little Blue Envelopes, way back when I was a freshman in high school. In the ten years since the initial reading, I’ve yet to pick it back up, but it sits on my bookshelf awaiting the day that I decide to revisit it. The fuzzy memories I have about Little Blue Envelopes come complete with a general feeling of it being cute and fluffy, yet not really a novel that held any true substance, much like most young adult novels from the mid-2000’s. Johnson was written off as a novelist I probably wouldn’t elect to read again; however, I ended up seeing The Name of the Star a few years back when I was scrolling through the Kindle Store, having been drawn in by its cover. The blurb seemed intriguing enough, but I never quite got around to reading it before I ended up losing the Kindle (which is a story all its own, trust me). Color me surprised, though, when I finally got to reading The Name of the Star; I’m fully prepared to eat crow based on my past judgments.
The Name of the Star follows Louisiana native Rory Deveaux, whose professor parents take a job teaching in the United Kingdom. As a result, she’s transported from backwater life in the bayou straight into the heart of a bustling global capital, London. Her arrival happens to coincide with a string of mysterious murders that eerily echo the methods of London’s infamous Jack the Ripper. After Rory’s own brush with death in her school cafeteria, she begins to see things — or people, rather — that others don’t: the 80’s punk leafing through poetry in the library, the 40’s woman picking up litter along the streets, and a mysterious bald man who lingers around the sites of the recent murders. From that point on, she becomes intricately entwined in the search for the killer that so eludes the sight of both police and, strangely, CCTV cameras. Hopefully, Rory and the team of secret paranormal police — the Shades — get to the bottom of it all before she finds herself to be the new Ripper’s latest victim.
As mentioned previously, this book is a complete departure from what I’ve read of Maureen Johnson in the past. I found myself absolutely gripped by the twists and turns of the novel and, unlike some other mystery books I’ve read recently, a lot of the developments came completely out of left field, especially as the plot sprinted toward the end of the novel. At the beginning, there were some things that I picked up on, like Boo sharing Rory’s ability to see ghosts — come on, her name is Boo — but these glaring hints still didn’t prepare me for one of the most heart-stopping climaxes I’ve seen in a good while. I wish I could say more, but I don’t want to give away too much. If I were wearing my pearls, though, I definitely would have been clutching them during the final confrontation. Furthermore, I loved the little sprinklings of Johnson’s own sense of humor throughout the novel. There’s one quick little passage that stood out to me in particular that had me reaching to tweet at her for being so sneaky before realizing that’d be somewhat creepy. While Rory is eating breakfast alone in the refectory after a restless night, she takes in some of the details of the room around her, including some interesting architectural features. Rory thinks, “I looked at the stained glass-window of the lamb in the window above me, but that only reminded me that lambs are famous for being led to slaughter, or sometimes hanging out with lions in ill-advised relationships.” Any past lover of Twilight (myself included, let’s be real) will recognize that as a nod to the famous “And so the lion fell in love with the lamb” quote used to describe Edward and Bella’s relationship. The entire book is littered with snarky little asides which I found utterly charming. Additionally, I have to give Johnson praise for giving Rory a make-out partner in Jerome, but not letting their physical attraction toward each other serve as the most important plot and character detail, like most contemporary YA novels tend to do as of late. Also every teen girl needs their own little side piece make-out partner every once in a while, if I’m going to be frank.
However, there were definitely some areas in The Name of the Star that needed some major retooling, which led to the four pug rating rather than the five pug I wanted to give it initially. First, I had some issues with the various little vignettes that were dotted throughout the course of the story. From time to time, Johnson introduced the perspectives of random Londoners who find themselves involved in some way on the outskirts of the Ripper frenzy, but I didn’t really feel like they contributed to the plot much, if at all. For example, it’s made clear early on that the murders are being done directly in the line of sight of CCTV cameras and anyone who views the tapes can tell that someone is being maimed, but the perpetrator is nowhere to be seen. One of the sidebars follows Veronica Atkins, who happens to have installed one of the cameras that caught one of the murders on film. She views the tape and ends up uploading it to the Internet to aid in the investigation, but the audience never hears from her specifically again. One of the main characters later mentions the video in passing, but that’s the extent. Also worth mentioning is that, all of a sudden, Stephen — the captain of the Shades — knows exactly who the new Ripper is after Rory has a frightening confrontation with someone outside of a school fancy dress party. There was no logical step, no reasoning behind them coming to that conclusion other than “WELL HE’S THE RIPPER ALRIGHT.” Up until that point, there was no real indication of who the new Ripper was other than a few shifty characters here and there, potentially to serve as red herrings. Additionally, there were a few classist undertones present upon the introduction of Bhuvani/Boo, especially regarding her patterns of speech. Rory and Jazza, her roommate, definitely dismiss her as being a less-than-stellar presence in their lives due to the way she speaks and presents herself; rather, she did until she proved herself useful to Rory when it came to learning about their paranormal abilities. Jazza still didn’t really want anything to do with her until near the end.
Overall, this was a great start to a thrilling, intriguing series. I’ve always had a fascination with novels involving ghost encounters, and I love to see such a unique twist on the genre. Johnson’s witticisms and conviction to telling a fast-paced, action-packed tale made this an entertaining read that I, honestly, should have picked up years ago. Hopefully some of the issues I ran into during the first novel make like a ghost and disappear in the second novel of the series, The Madness Underneath. I’m interested to see where the story takes us now that the Ripper plot is no more, but the cliffhanger at the end of this book indicates that Rory’s not done with her ghost story as of yet.
Amazing Pug Scale: