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Review: The Name of the Star
The Plot: Rory Deveaux is spending her senior year at Wexford, a boarding school in London. Meeting new people, figuring out a new school system, being in London instead of a small town in Louisiana, should be amazing. And it is — except for the murders. Murders that are mimicking the infamous 1888 Jack the Ripper murders. Rory and her fellow students try to get on with life and school; all that changes when Rory sees someone suspicious by the school, someone the police think may be their Prime Suspect. Someone only Rory saw. Is Rory at risk?
The Good: The Name of the Star has a slow build to the big reveal — which is not that there are Jack the Ripper murders happening. The reader knows that from page one. No, the “reveal” is more about who Rory sees, and why she sees him, and who he is. While she spots him about page 100; sixty odd pages later she learns why.
Before that point, The Name of the Star is a boarding school book, full of the details that people like me swoon over. No, really, Johnson doesn’t just say that Rory wears a school uniform. Instead, the reader gets “ten white dress shirts, three dark gray skirts, one gray and white striped blazer, one maroon tie, one gray sweater with the school crest on the breast, twelve pairs of gray kneesocks.” And that’s not including the PE uniforms! Johnson puts us firmly in Rory’s new world, sharing everything from a map to the area to the food she likes, the food at school and the friends she is making. “An American Teen in London” is interrupted by the Ripper murders.
There is a mystery, but it is not yet Rory’s mystery. Rory’s story is one of suspense (what is happening with the murders?) and possible romance (Jerome). Jerome: he is like the perfect book boyfriend, not in the sense that he is perfect, and not in the sense that he is a boyfriend, but in the sense that Johnson perfectly portrays a typical teen romance that is, well, typical. It’s not overwhelmed by having it be any more or any less than what it is: two young people being attracted to each other, having fun kissing, and trying to work out what that means. After one kissing session with Jerome, Rory thinks “when you live with someone — or on the same campus, I mean — and you have a mad make-out session, you have two choices. You can either indicate that you enjoy your mad make-out sessions and intend to indulge in them at every given opportunity . . . or you do not acknowledge the make-out session, or indeed any physical attraction. There is no middle ground, not at boarding school.”
Then, it happens — the murders touch Rory’s world.
It’s not what you may think; one of the murders takes place very close to Rory, yes, but that’s not the big reveal.
The thing is, Rory has acquired more than uniforms and friends at her London school. She’s also gained a new talent: no, not field hockey. Seeing dead people. Seeing, specifically, the ghosts of dead people. This unique ability pulls Rory into the mystery, into the search for the person recreating the murders, and into danger. She also encounters a Torchwood-like squad of similarly gifted young people. At this point, the action is much more involved than “how early do I have to get up to have enough time in the shower I share with so many other girls” or “kissing Jerome.”
As I said above, it’s almost half way through the book before Rory sees a ghost, or, rather, realizes that she is seeing ghosts. Here’s why I like that timing, as opposed to giving it to us on page one or chapter one: that’s life. One minute, you’re worrying about classes and friends, the next, life changes, and that life change is not conveniently at the start of things, it’s sometimes in the middle. Why, in shows like Supernatural or Buffy or The Vampire Diaries, must the supernatural reveal always happen right away? What about the lives people led, the normalcy of their routines, before it all went witches and vampires or, in this case, ghosts? I like it in part because I’ve wanted, for a while, to read a book or series where the “supernatural is REAL” moment happens late in the game.
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About Elizabeth Burns
Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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