29 October 2011

Get Your Spook On! Book review: The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

I picked this book up because our store's holiday newsletter needed some more YA reviews and I had read and very much enjoyed Maureen Johnson's Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes a couple of years ago.  Its focus on travel and family and independence and finding your inner strength seemed so refreshing in the peak of the Twilight craze (is it finally fading?  or is that just the calm before the storm of the next release in the movie franchise?), so I was game to try another of her books.  Little did I know that The Name of the Star would not be the same breezy read that her other novels were.

I suppose the cover image should have warned me, and if I had actually read the blurbs on the back, they certainly would have warned me.  But no, all I knew about the book when I started reading late one night was that a teen girl from the American South (yay) moves to London (yay) and attends boarding school there for a year (double-yay)--and something about Jack the Ripper (not-so-yay).  Well, it pretty much scared the pants off of me.  I quit reading scary books years ago, and had I known just how spooky this one would be, I would not have started reading it in bed one night.  It was immediately engaging, which quickly became riveting, and two hours in, I realized I couldn't just fall asleep.  I had to stay awake until the bitter scary end. Because we all know what happens when your unconscious dreaming mind starts drawing on the shadowy underworld you've just put down on your nightstand--nightmares and hallucinations!  Or perhaps that just me, then?

Now I should have prefaced this by saying that it doesn't take much to scare me.  I will NOT read Stephen King or anything that I know to be of the horror genre, and I eschew mysteries of the non-cozy variety.  So take this review with several grains of salt (and a shot of tequila if you like). On a Spooky Scale from 1-10, with Edgar Allan Poe being a 1 and King/Matheson/Harris/Connolly being on the 10 side of things, this book leans more Poe-ward. 

Rory hails from Louisiana, but she's attending Wexford boarding school in London for a year while her parents are on sabbatical, teaching at the University of Bristol.  She's eager to experience all cultural things English but is slightly dismayed to arrive at school in the immediate wake of a murder, done very much in the style of Jack the Ripper.  Before long, it becomes clear that there's a copycat serial killer on the loose, someone who is intimately knowledgeable of the original Ripper killings.  The mysterious thing is that despite London's notoriously invasive camera surveillance system, only the murder victims show up on the films, not the murderer.  But does that mean that the serial killer is some kind of special-ops guy with stealth training and cloaking devices, or is it something that can only be explained with the paranormal? 

Meanwhile, one night Rory and her roommate sneak out of their girls' dormitory to sneak up to the roof of the boys' dorm to watch the media circus in anticipation of the Ripper's next move. As they try to sneak back in, Rory catches a glimpse of a man that nobody else notices--a man who now has set his diabolical sights on Rory. 

This novel is very well-paced, with lots of thrills, but I also loved the quieter moments of the book, too: Rory and her roommate sharing gossip over Cheez-Whiz in their dorms (warmed to a perfect gooey consistency courtesy of their radiator), her awkwardness of learning to play field hockey under the tutelage of an insane coach, the sinking feeling she gets as she realizes that she's one of the very few students at Wexford who haven't been ruthlessly groomed for success from the cradle onward. You've got the obligatory British humor and quirky characters and the "keep calm and carry on" attitude in the face of rising terror.

The intriguing life-and-death climax ties up the essential plot points of this first book in a way that satisfies the reader while laying the groundwork for book two, something that many published trilogies (complete or partial) have been unable to pull off and which I find cheat the reader, intentionally or not. It's going to feel like a long wait until the next book in the series is released, but that just means I will have plenty of time to plan a nice, cheery location in which to read it--preferable a cozy nook that gets lots of morning light!

If you like Cassandra Clare, Holly Black, or Sarah Rees Brennan's work, take The Name of the Star out for a spin.  Just make sure you bring it back before dark or else be prepared to keep watch over your shoulder when twilight falls.


  1. I so admire your reading speed abilities. If I could keep up with a tenth, I'd be thoroughly blessed.

  2. I've been trying to decide whether to read this one or not because I, too, have enjoyed Maureen Johnson in the past. Now I think I will pick it up, but like you, will have to read it in a cozy sunlit place. Thanks for the great review!

  3. Sounds great. I think my tolerance for scary is slightly higher. I love a good ghost story.


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