The cat has got to admit it: she’s not really a card-carrying member of Maureen Johnson’s posse… Though 13 Little Blue Envelopes and Suite Scarlett are sweet enough in and of themselves and – truth be told – are actually quite popular with the kittens, the cat somehow misses something of the spunk, that MJ clearly has as an Internet personality (Twitter much?) and that should form the basis of equally gumptious prose (European roadtrip! Broadway theater!). Instead, the cat saw straightforward if not predictable writing and down-to-earth and yes, even bland main characters. Needless to say, the cat didn’t really have the highest expectations of The Name of the Star, and as such, was more than pleasantly surprised to see that Maureen Johnson seems to have grown up a bit: gone is the almost formulaic light holiday romance.
Enter a new genre to conquer featuring that age-old almost proper British tradition of the boarding school! Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, Enid Blyton (!)… they’ve all done it. More recently, Libba Bray’s Emma Doyle-trilogy was also set in a boarding school, and of course J.K Rowling has been known to write a couple of books about a boy at a certain boarding school. It’s to this tradition of mixing the boarding school setting with the fantasy angle (set forth a.o. by Ursula LeGuin) that The Name of the Star definitely also refers.
Rory Deveaux is 16 when her parents get jobs in Britain. Because her parents are the liberal-minded kind, they let her choose what school to go to and she chooses Wexford in London. Rory arrives on the same day as a new Rippermania breaks out in London. A mysterious killer is mimicking Jack The Ripper’s crimes. Whodunit? The strange man only Rory got to see? Is it the real Ripper who’s returned? Along with Rory’s investigation and consequent involvement in the Ripper murders, Maureen Johnson provides a more than entertaining outsiders’ perspective on London and British life in general…often tongue-in-cheek, but never condescending.
That being said, some of the predictability that was symptomatic of Maureen Johnson’s other works, is still there (Boo, for instance – way too obvious!). There are a few twists and turns in the book (it’s a mystery first and foremost, of course, so the occasional twist is almost obligatory) that feel a bit off, while other plotlines (and characters) are a bit underdeveloped once the ‘secret London ghost police’ turn up in the book. The fact that Rory’s roommate Jazza seems to virtually disappear in the 2nd half of the book is a bit of a downer considering the fact that Maureen Johnson so skillfully built up the boarding school life in the 1st half of the novel.
The mystery surrounding the Jack the Ripper murders has kept Ripperologists going ever since 1888. Maureen Johnson is skillful enough to pick up on the public’s fascination with the gruesome, the fantastic, the mysterious, the unsolved…1888 or 2011. Nothing much seems to have changed and Maureen Johnson shows that when you mix a dash of history (Jack the Ripper) with a hint of fantasy (it’s alive, it’s alive!), it doesn’t have to be all boring all the time. Kudos to MJ for her (a bit unexpected) ‘career change’… paranormal YA fantasy (1) – teen romance (0). The cat knows which MJ novel she’ll pick up next!