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21 Apr 2012

Review: The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

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, humour, and romance, Rory will learn the truth about the secret ghost police of London and discover her own shocking abilities.

I think I set my expectations too high on this one.  After all the great reviews I've seen for it and the fact that it involves Jack the Ripper I was already fangirling over this book.  The premise sounded fantastic and intriguing.  A Jack the Ripper Ghost? This killer was a feared name as a human in Victorian London but think of how easily he could kill as a ghost.  Appearing anywhere at any time without being caught or even seen on camera.  How can you stop or kill someone who is already dead?

The character of Rory was interesting enough.  She was a quirky girl with some absurd family stories and a little habit of digressing sometimes with these tales.  She always found a way to relate the events happening to a story she had of a relative yet sometimes that got in the way of the plot.  But if this was all part of shaping who she was as a character then I believed it worked.  She's an interesting girl with an interesting life and stories that is hugely contrasted against her new life in London.  She ends up looking and seeming completely alien in a new country and vice versa.  I've never been to America so I wouldn't know how different it would be to live temporarily there or even in another country.  As a result I didn't know how to relate to what she was experiencing.  I wasn't too bothered by her but found her to be incredibly naive.  She didn't understand how terrifying it was for a serial killer to be on the loose, thinking it would be a good idea to sneak out on a night the Ripper was supposed to kill again.  I was also a little pissed off at the fact that she thought it was so cool the Ripper killings had made her school cancel hockey practice.  But sadly there are people like Rory in real life.  I was at school when the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London happened and I overhead some teenagers celebrating because for them it meant no school for the rest of the day.  It's sick but true.  People die and some jerks think its awesome because it gets something they hate cancelled. 

While I appreciated the author in doing her research of London and Great Britain sometimes the story read like a wikipedia page.  Kudos on really focusing to get the setting and atmosphere as authentic as possible but Johnson fell victim to info-dumping.  Whenever Rory started listing facts about London and Great Britain it always felt like her POV was being pushed aside and the author's voice was creeping in to show off how well she did her research.  I would have preferred more subtle ways of highlighting British culture and history.  I guess as an English reader who's lived in London I found it irritating because I was already aware of these facts.  I knew what GCSEs were, I knew that Wales had their own language, and I knew we could legally drink at 18.

I started to feel disappointed when I found out more about the Ripper.  When the ghost police came into the story the serial killer felt like he was being pushed into the background.  As soon as he was revealed he appeared less threatening.  He said he felt threatened but by starting the killings in the first place he brought on the attention himself and that's when the ghost police had to think about tracking him down.  I liked the whole mystery about him and the possibility that the Jack the Ripper was back.  But instead it felt like a supernatural version of Whitechapel when I got further into the novel and I was just reading a story that had already been done with the new addition of ghosts.

That being said I did love some of the ghosts.  The idea of them just walking around, stuck in limbo, was both eerie and sad.  All those times you think you're walking down the streets alone? You're not.  There's probably about five ghosts walking around next to you and watching you.  Most of the ghosts who were introduced became the stars of the show, more so than the characters who were alive.  They all had tragic backgrounds.  The actual nature of these ghosts was upsetting as some of them were so stuck in limbo they still felt the emotions they had just before they died.  Rather than haunting people they were haunted themselves.  The characters who were alive just didn't grab my attention as well and they weren't well-developed.  Charlotte, the Head Girl, is portrayed as Rory and Jazza's enemy although to be fair she's just ambitious and trying to do her job as Head Girl.  I didn't really get how she could be all bad.  Boo is a very loud, in-your-face character.  Callum is the anti-social douche who doesn't take to Rory.  Stephen is the quiet, serious one with a secret history.  Jerome just serves as the Love Interest and random kissing partner.  And that's pretty much everything about them.  They didn't have any layers. 

What was probably the strongest aspect of the book was the portrayal of a society experiencing a Ripper copycat.  It's sad but true.  We would go insane about it.  The media would turn the killings into the event of the year with story after story being published and shown on TV.  People would be both excited and fearful.  It would be used as a tourist attraction.  It's sick but I could see that really happening.  Some people would really get a kick out of it for the pure reason of being able to say "I was there and it happened here".  Jack the Ripper is an obsession and Johnson really emphasised that.

If you are interested in Jack the Ripper I'd recommend the series Whitechapel instead of The Name of the Star.  The first season of the TV series focused on a copycat Ripper and it was fantastic.  While the Ripper in this book is just taking advantage of the name rather than actually trying to be the Ripper Whitechapel deals with a really crazy killer.  That guy is the real deal. 

So I can't really say I'd like to recommend this.  I mean, if you want to still go ahead and read the book then go for it.  I'd never tell a person not to read a book because we all have our different likes and dislikes.  But overall I wasn't really blown away.  With the cliffhanger ending I may attempt the sequel.  I hate not finishing something but I won't go into it with high expectations. I'm also not going to rush for it either.

There are some questions I'd love to hear opinions on if you've read the book:

1) If you've had the experience of living temporarily or permanently in a new country did you find yourself feeling so alien like Rory did? Do you really notice the difference and strange, new ways?
2) If you're not a British reader what were your feelings towards the facts of London and British life Johnson kept throwing in? Did it get in the way for you or were you glad to have them in?
3) Does England really come off as being obsessed with tea? It was the only thing characters seemed to drink in the novel.

I don't even like tea. =/



3 comments:

  1. First off, I have to echo your disappointment with this book. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't really this. I didn't dislike the book, I just wish it had been so much more.

    To answer one of your questions, I lived in Germany for six months, and I found that while there were some similarities to how we live and do things in Canada, there were many differences as well. The frustration came in the little things like grocery shopping when I couldn't find ingredients that I use on a regular basis back home. Also, not being fluent in the language made me feel like a constant outsider, especially when my German companions got tired of translating for me. Don't get me wrong, I loved Germany. But it certainly felt lonely a good chunk of the time. So I guess I can relate to Rory in that respect :)

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  2. I lived in the US for a year and I settled in really quickly. Even in India, where I really stood out and didn't speak a word of the language, I never felt constantly alienated.

    ...I reeeeeeeeeeally miss the curry ^^;

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  3. Thanks for the insight! :)

    Jaime, my feelings exactly. The focus of the story constantly switched. From American girl at a London Boarding School to a Ripper Ghost to secret ghost police to people with special abilities. It felt like there were too many things in one book.

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