The Name of the Star – Maureen Johnson
When someone alludes to a “haunted city”, there are two cities that promptly pop into my head: London is the first and New Orleans is the second.
The first is just so darn old that it gives one the impression that layer upon layer of lives have occupied the city. With such a crowded history, it’s hard to imagine that, at such volume, all of these lives, souls, whatever you think of them as, have completely deserted the city. Add to the general mob scene that has always been London, plagues, fires and other unfortunate disasters and you’re baking a seriously spiritual pie. My favorite ingredient, of course, one can’t forget that there have also been some pretty shady political “squabbles” over the years, not the least of which brought blood to the Tower and other well-known spots around town. Overall, it’s got a great (or, if you prefer, gruesome) history when it comes to bringing out the dead.
The second, for starters, is in a deep, dark swamp. Starting from there, add in tradition grown out of island superstition, the city’s habit of being known as a launching pad for American voodoo, a culture steeped in the mystical and magical world of the old south and its generations old marriage to the Caribbean legends of old, decades of social unrest including Civil War, random murder and other fun trivia and well, how does anyone get any sleep in that town?
So I might be slightly addicted to the Travel Channel’s travels to these places on many a ghost hunting mission where they peek into every creepy occurence each locale has ever seen but, hey, these two spots end up on these shows often for a reason, right? One has to think that any story that encompasses both cities is bound to end up on the spectrally leaning side of things. I can’t promise it for every such match up but I can tell you that Maureen Johnson’s latest offering, The Name of the Star, certainly milks the pair for a fine bit of phantasmic fun.
Her spunky protagonist, Aurora (please call her Rory), is a Louisiana native, uprooted (but willingly, really) mid-high school when her parents decide to move to Bristol. She begs permission to attend school in the city at a prestigious boarding school and jumps into the new year with vigor.
Fitting in doesn’t seem to be on Rory’s list of worries, really (thanks to Johnson’s refreshing tendency to break away from YA’s overwrought teen drama circuit). The social scene at her new school is a bit different from home but not impossible, thanks to a few friendly apples in the rather stuffy bunch. At first, it seems like the hardest things she’ll face are the incredibly enthusiastic field hockey coach and a blindingly torturous academic load that New Orleans has never seen the likes of.
Hard doesn’t begin to describe the drama that soon grips London, however. Shortly after Rory makes her way to her new private playground, a rash of media-dubbed “Ripper-like” killings make things a bit more…interesting. The students don’t seem distraught, at first. In fact, along with the rest of the city, seem to be making quite a festive spectacle out of “Rippermania”, what really should be observed as tragedy.
All of the excitement is taken in stride until Rory runs into a very unusual campus visitor, late one night. His appearance topples Rory’s exPat fun into much more complicated waters. Suddenly, the entire, ongoing event has a much more sinister ring to it and Rory finds herself in way over her usually adventurous head.
More than a simple study of paranormal doings, The Name of the Star is a delightfully disturbing, action packed romp through time and place, bringing old legends, bloody history, modern hysteria and newfangled technology to Johnson’s tried and true repertoire of snarky teen tales.
This was Johnson’s spookiest book, to date, and I loved the foray into new territory. While I will admit to seeing a slight lack of her usual calling card (signaled by sarcastically hilarious banter) it wasn’t absent completely and the added bonus of a new genre focus was worth it.
I will say, as a heads up, that I started to sweat toward the end, as the story would down, as it seemed like there was way more to cover before the curtain could fall. I nearly tossed the book across the room when I finished because I thought to myself, “Hey, wait! She can’t end it just like that!” Because it didn’t end in a total cliffhanger, I thought that Johnson had justice one of those books that leaves the reader imagining what happened with all of the setup loose ends. I halfheartedly accepted this for about twenty minutes before breaking down and googling up a sequel.
Thank God, almighty, I won’t have to cry myself to sleep tonight! There is, in fact, more to come. This is simply the first in Johnson’s Shades of London series. Phew! needless to say, I’ll be jumping on the rest of the books as they hit publication.