Johnson, Maureen. The Name of the Star. Speak, 2011. 372p. Grades 6-12. Mystery/Thriller. (2012 Edgar Award Nominee).
Seventeen year old Rory Deveaux has left her small-town Louisiana life to attend a London boarding school for her senior year. She expected the usual thrills of high school life—friends, schoolwork, maybe a little romance—but instead becomes the only witness to a series of bizarre murders, murders perpetrated by someone copying those of Jack the Ripper. Why is Rory the only person who has seen the murderer? How can she balance this knowledge with her everyday life? Johnson answers these questions and more in this gripping novel, the first in her Shades of London trilogy.
Thoughts– If I were to sum this book up in one word, it would be THRILLING. I was scared half to death in some parts, excited in others, frantically turning pages in order to get to the end…upon which I promptly drove to Barnes and Noble and bought the just-released sequel, The Madness Underneath. Then I read that one too. These books put a spell on me, no doubt. I think Johnson’s magic is found mostly in her characterization—she has a real ear for how teenagers speak and all of her characters seem distinct and real. You might not want to be friends with all of them (especially some of the ghosts Rory comes across), but you do believe that they could be actual people. Rory, as the narrator, has such a great voice, full of snark and wit, and I think she would be very relatable to teenagers.
Another aspect of The Name of the Star I think Johnson does well is the mystery at the book’s heart, or rather mysteries. Not only do you have a serial killer running around (who may or may not be a ghost), but you also have the questions of how Rory is seeing this person, who are these random, very young-looking police hanging out around her, and what part Rory’s near-death experience (she almost chokes on a piece of meat towards the beginning of the story) plays in her new life. Johnson layers these questions upon each other and, I think, ties up many of the loose ends at the conclusion of the book while simultaneously setting up a cliff-hanger for the second book in the series. I was worried at first that The Name of the Star would suffer from first book syndrome—too much exposition and characterization, not enough action—but I really think it stands up on its own. You don’t HAVE to read The Madness Underneath next…but you’ll definitely want to.
Overall, I found this book hugely engaging and entertaining; it was a fun read that had me hooked from the beginning. While it is extremely different from Maureen Johnson’s realistic fiction like Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes and The Keys to the Golden Firebird, I still see similarities in tone and voice that would appeal to readers of those novels. I definitely see it as a read-alike to Libba Bray’s The Diviners and would recommend it to anyone looking for a suspense novel guaranteed to send chills up your spine.