Review: The Name of the Star

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. Shades of London, Book One. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin. 2011. Personal copy.

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.


10 thoughts on “Review: The Name of the Star

  1. I love Maureen Johnson’s work, and this was no exception. I loved Rory’s witty observations and commentary, and I was genuinely anxious during the suspenseful moments. The only thing that bugged me a little was how hands-off her parents were. It’s kind of the Disney Dilemma – how do you put under-age protagonists in a situation where they can have exciting adventures without killing off a parent or two? Unless they’re dead, the parents come across as kind of neglectful. However. Middle-aged mother of two is not the target audience for this book, and I can’t imagine that the teen readers will give two hoots about my particular issue.


  2. Maybe it’s early enough in the year to start a list of convenient ways to ditch the parents without killing them. Not only is 40 somethings who see things from an older perspective not the target audience — we, or rather, I, do see some things the adults do a bit differently than teens. Part of it is the teens not caring; part of it is point of view. Ever hear grown ups do “remember when” around their parents? That happened recently at a holiday dinner, and the 60 somethings were a bit shocked at what they didn’t know was going on in their now-40ish then-teens lives.


  3. Kids definitely get up to way more than their parents realize (lord knows I did), but that’s more of the after-school-hours-while-mom-is-still-at-work or the parents-went-away-for-the-weekend-and-left-Alex(ASHFALL)-home-alone type of scenarios. In this one, she’s a stranger in a strange land where people are getting murdered right next to her school. The locals are pulling their kids out; I find it a little hard to believe that the Americans wouldn’t yank their kid, too, regardless of her feelings on the matter. Oh well, as I said, it’s a pretty small blemish on an otherwise entertaining reading experience.


  4. A friend of mine recently picked this up (on my recommendation for another friend), and she adored it. Perhaps, I should have prefaced this by saying she usually hates teen romances. Loathes them. But she liked that MJ was an astute study of human nature, and because of that, was incredibly funny. And the whole ghost story worked for her as well; perhaps because as you pointed out, the reveal is so late in the story.

    At any rate, I adore MJ’s writing, and this was no exception for me. I was glad I bought in on an impulse purchase.


  5. I really enjoyed this one. Name of the Star is very different from what Johnson’s done before but its still very much her. I love that she got a little darker with it.


  6. I liked this, as I like most of Maureen Johnson’s work. But in regards to her seeing ghosts being a spoiler: it felt a lot like Sixth Sense to me. In that movie, like in this book, the reveal about seeing ghosts happens well into the plot arc. But all of the movie trailers played up the ghost angle so instead of a slow build to a dramatic reveal, it was more like “okay, let’s get with the ghosts already.” I wasn’t impatient with the book because I was having fun with Rory and her life, but I definitely knew going into it that she saw ghosts. I just looked and while the bookflap doesn’t actually say so, it implies something supernatural going on. Maybe it was an ad I saw that gave that detail away? I wish I hadn’t known that because I spotted every single ghost well before Rory did, in many cases well before Rory even realized she could see ghosts.


  7. Lisa, it was a fun read.

    Melissa, what I liked about the humor was it was grounded in real life, in observations or comments.

    Doret, and there are scenes that still come back to me — the ghosts in the subways, for instance.

    Alys, it’s so hard, sometimes, to figure out what is or isn’t a spoiler; or how much is best left as a surprise. Here, I went with the jacketflap not really mentioning it — but still thought it was something I wanted to talk about. I’d read enough reviews to know that she saw ghosts and to figure out why.


  8. I just listened to this one, and the audio production is pretty well-done. I like it as a series starter, too–a lot going on with the foreign setting and history and romance and mystery and supernatural element. It’s detailed without feeling overlong.


  9. This book was great, one of those ones I finished in a day because I just couldn’t put it down. It’s the first book I read by Maureen Johnson and I’ll deffinetly be going back for more. The one thing, however, that I didn’t like was Jerome. I mean I liked him, but not as her boyfriend, I think there should be more background information on him so it’s easier to relate to him. Just being the guy she was making out with in the library didn’t really work for me. In my opinion Rory should end up with Stephen, he’s a more developed character and he seemed really sweet. I guess it’s not really for me to say, but that’s just my opinion. All in all, this was a great book.


  10. adrienne, I’ll take a listen to the audio

    Regan, one day! That’s a sure sign of a well loved book. You know what — I agree with you about Jerome. I think he’s a good “Mr Right Now”, not a “Mr Right.”


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