Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Local Library 
Read: Jan.7, 2012

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

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The only thought in my head for much of the reading was that of Alexis Bledel as Rory Gilmore. It doesn’t do much credit to a story when the reader is perpetually distracted by a pop culture reference. You don’t see Heathcliff or Rochester being thrown around the literary world for a reason. The goal is to hook your reader, not set them in mind of other amusements. Perhaps I am too judgmental but I feel this was an exceeding poor choice on Johnson’s part especially since we are talking about her protagonist. Chapter one is bad place to identify your first red flag.

I also found Johnson’s assumptions presumptuous especially as she is an American. For example, the central character is greeted at what I assume to be Heathrow by Mr. Franks who informs her that “Some nutter’s gone and pulled a Jack the Ripper.” She barely even registers the name and doesn’t attempt to understand the reference. Maybe I am mistaken but I was under the impression that the name Jack the Ripper is what sold this book. Okay, Rory is American but we aren’t completely incompetent. She may not know the details of the case but the name would certainly ring a bell. I was similarly irked by Johnson’s need to explain the term “prefect.” Again, I know we are largely considered uncultured, ignorant and arrogant but give us a little credit. Harry Potter mania wasn’t limited to jolly ol’ England mate. To be fair I did appreciate the explanations of Bonfire Night and the local perception of pubs and alcohol in general but I would have been happier if I didn’t feel the author was insulting the general intelligence of teenage America.
Thoroughly annoyed is not a good way to begin the third chapter of any book and things don’t get much better. The writing is mediocre but the pacing is the nail in the coffin. The story doesn’t take off until the last hundred pages but getting there like slogging up a mountain in the rain. Irrelevant anecdotes about Rory’s family, Wexford’s daily menus and occasional episodes of awkward snogging leave little room for character or plot development. Rory doesn’t go after the killer until she realizes she is a target but she also doesn’t have any genuine interest in what is going on around her. No, our insipid heroine is only relieved the threat and subsequent media circus have resulted in cancelled hockey sessions with Charlotte and Call Me Claudia. Why should a reader be interested in a story the primary character is a) not interested in and b) largely uninvolved with?

Before I close I invite those of you own a copy of the book to turn it over. There, on the back cover you will find glowing remarks from Cassandra Clare, Ally Carter and Holly Black. Now again, I beg your indulgence and ask you to open the book to the Acknowledgments section. Here you will find the following statement:

To my friends, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Robin Wasserman, Holly Black, Cassie Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, John Green, Libba Bray, Ally Carter who read drafts, walked me through plot problems, and talked me off of ledges.

I don’t know about you but I find it appalling that Johnson and publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons would stoop so low. It would be different if these were unbiased third parties or professional critics but by the author’s own pen, these are her friends. As such their opinions are irrelevant. Additionally the appearance of their feedback paired with Johnson’s admission call into question the integrity of all three women as they are essentially endorsing a piece they had a hand in creating. Bad form all around, bad form.

At this point you may be wondering why I have issued a two star rating rather than flagging The Name of the Star a complete waste of time. The truth is I, like so many others, have a rather morbid curiosity in regards to the Whitechapel murders. The basic concepts of the story are not altogether horrid and I actually really like the idea Johnson was trying to execute. The Ripper theme wasn't as strong as I had hoped but there were a handful of chapters towards the end where I actually felt the book was getting better. This brief shining moment was subsequently followed but a train wreck but that doesn’t change the fact that for a few pages, hope existed.

On the fence about taking on book two when it is published in the fall. If I learned anything from Anna Godberson’s Luxe series or Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy it is to listen to my gut and quit while I’m ahead. Still, I like to think authors improve with time and experience. I have yet to identify anyone who fits the description but I have been known to torture myself searching for that elusive diamond in the rough.

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Clearly, Jerome and I had a complicated thing going on. He told me scary Jack the Ripper facts, and I had the sudden need to make out with him until I ran out of breath.
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Kimberly @ Caffeinated Reviewer said...

I love the cover..but ouch think I will pass on this one.

Anonymous said...

I agree, the cover is pretty but it is also misleading. There is no character in the book that dresses in Victorian clothing. :(

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

Oh dear, I best stay away from this one. I was a little interested in it because Jack the Ripper was fascinating, but it sounds annoying. As a Brit, I would doubly hate all the explanations.

I'm a new follower of your blog, looking forward to reading more of your reviews :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you and welcome!

I was very disappointed with this one as the Jack the Ripper angle is why I picked it up but the serial killer is a pretty minor aspect of the plot. Nothing you can't find on Wikipedia here.

As a Brit can I ask a question? Johnson uses a reference to the Spice Girls in the book. The group hasn't been big here for quite some time. Is it the same in England? Seems like an old group for present day teens to enjoy.

Marg said...

I liked this one a lot when I read it! Maybe it was a case of right book for the right time, maybe her style just works for me a lot better than it does for you. Who knows!

I must say that I totally agree about the usefulness of cover blurbs that you know come from the author's besties! It happens all the time, and even if it isn't as blatant as your example it does get annoying. Sometimes it isn't necessarily a good thing to know to much so that the blurbs can't be taken at face value.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad this one worked for you!!! I think you have a point with her writing style. It didn't work me at all. That along with the other little details just grated on my nerves but like I said, I am really happy you were able to enjoy it. :D

Erin Elizabeth Long said...

I'm pretty sure Cassandra Clare will put her endorsement on just about anything. I've seen her reviews highlighted on the covers of many mediocre books.

I remember reading on one of their blogs that Clare, Maureen Johnson, Scott Westerfield, Holly Black, Libba Bray and a few others actually share an office in New York where they write. They're a close-knit little group, and they drop references to each other's work in their books. It's kind of annoying.

Anonymous said...

That's too bad. One would think they would have more pride in themselves. This advertising tactic is cheap and I agree, very annoying.

Pam Pho said...

I don't think any author would put their name on a product that they felt was subpar. Conspiracy theories like that are normally just theory with no proven hypothesis.

Anonymous said...

It isn't a conspiracy theory to say I am appalled by the tactic. It is a fact that the idea offends my perception of honest advertising.

Friends and family are universally more generous in their assessments than strangers or critics. I would be happier if the author or publisher had more faith in the piece and relied on the statements of unbiased third parties.

The ladies in question cannot be unbiased. Johnson clearly states these are her friends and more importantly, they helped her through the writing process. They had a hand, however small, in the creation of the book and as such are not qualified to give impartial feedback.

I mean no offense but I am not sure where you are seeing a conspiracy theory. There is no alleged cover up. My opinions are based on statements that appear on and in the book.

Laura said...

It may be a bit appalling, but each and every book has blurbs written by authors from the same publisher as the one publishing the book. It is the way things work-- and why I don't take those reviews on the back cover too seriously.

If you are published, you are given books by other authors for the same publisher and asked to review them for blurbs. The publisher isn't going to use anything negative from those.

There are a few exceptions, of course-- take Stephen King reviewing The Hunger Games. No one asked him to, he just liked it. But yeah, typically, it's authors from the same publisher doing the publisher (and author) a favor.

Anonymous said...

It may be how it works but I maintain whoever makes these decisions isn't doing Johnson or her pals any favors. The publisher can get positive reviews from unbiased reviewers just as easily as they can their contract writers.

And it isn't that these women are authors that is the problem. It is that they helped Johnson write the book. If these women hadn't peer edited and helped Johnson with the drafting of her work I wouldn't have a word to say about it. Authors have just as much right to review as anyone else so long as they are not reviewing their own work and though The Name of the Star has Johnson's name on the cover, Clare, Carter and Black helped her out the piece together so in a manner of speaking they are reviewing something they had a hand in creating.

Anonymous said...


Emma said...

To answer your earlier question, no, the Spice Girls haven't been around in the UK for years. VB still makes the headlines in gossip mags but its certainly not for any musical talent - most for who she's married to.

I agree completely with your review and I like the fact that you flagged up the mutual back-patting between Cassandra Clare et al. I've noticed that she appears to be part of a little clique of YA authors who all use any opportunity to plug each other's books. For that reason, I generally ignore any endorsements from those authors.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Emma! Hard as it is to believe that has been bugging me.

I've seen it before but never so blatantly. It is an underhanded advertising tactic that doesn't speak well of any of the involved parties. It may well be how the publishing world works but to me this is really no better than saying "my mom thinks I'm wonderful."

Lucy D. said...

where did you find the book? i'd appreciate your help, i cannot find it anywhere for my ebook.
btw good review:) (and sorry for my lack of opinion:$)

Anonymous said...

Not a problem Calupso.

Thankfully I live near a very accommodating library. I placed an ILL request and they ended up buying the book.

The book is available at Amazon for 9.99 but used hard copies are also on sale on Amazon for under three dollars.