I don't read many YA novels, but when I do I am often surprised by how fun and entertaining and sometimes even very sophisticated they are. I came across Maureen Johnson by way of the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award. The Name of the Star has been nominated in the Young Adult category. While not a traditional mystery, and perhaps more playful than dark, it was an enjoyable read. Using the Jack the Ripper legend Johnson spins an unusual tale with a paranormal slant. I can see how appealing this story would be to YA readers and passed more than a few happy hours with it myself at the gym.
It must be a stock feature in young adult literature that the hero or heroine is in some way separated from their parents and must rely on their own wits to get out of tight situations. What fun otherwise would it be for a young reader? That independence is surely part of the excitement of a story. In this case Aurora Deveaux, or Rory as she prefers to be called, has traveled to London ahead of her parents where she is to attend boarding school while they work in Bristol. Coming from hot, humid Louisiana rainy London is something of a shock but she takes it all in stride. So maybe she's not so adept at field hockey, and she's nowhere near as reserved as most of her classmates with stories of her eccentric family back in New Orleans, but she clicks with her roommate, Jazza, and even manages to catch the eye of Jerome, a cute prefect.
Before even stepping foot off the plane, a murder reminiscent of those committed by Jack the Ripper has taken place. As more bodies pile up, each murder taking place on the same date as the original Ripper murders, it's not just fear that grips London. While everyone waits for the next murder to happen, there is almost a party-like atmosphere in the city. The idea of a modern-day Ripper takes on a life of its own, and the media gives the story constant coverage. London has one of the most extensive networks of CCTV cameras anywhere, but the police have few leads and strangely, no one has seen anything. Except for Rory.
Though the students are confined to the school grounds, Rory, Jazza and Jerome sneak up to the roof to try and catch a glimpse of the activity not far from their school which is situated in Wexford very close to where the murders are occurring. As Jazza and Rory are climbing back into a window after a disappointing evening spent Ripper-watching, a man approaches Rory asking if she should be that. At the time he seems harmless enough though he gives her the creeps without realizing why. And then the next day a body is found on school grounds, though the woman was not a student. Since she seems to be the only person to see something unusual Rory is questioned by the police. But it's a special branch of the police that Rory will get involved with.
I'm hesitant to share more and spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that ghosts are wandering modern day London, and Rory can see them. How's that for a teaser? Why she has the ability and what she does with it I'll leave to you to discover if you're curious. Johnson sets the story up handily for a sequel, which I understand will be released later this year. For me the attraction of this book, aside from being on the Edgar list, was the London setting. Although Rory is part of a closed world mostly within the confines of her school, Johnson does a good job of setting the scene--dropping a young American girl into this very British environment.
It was nicely atmospheric but not in any way heavy handed and detail-laden. There was just enough to make things interesting. I can imagine YA readers being interested in the cultural differences--like the way schools work or the fact that their British counterparts can drink alcohol when they can't here at the same age. And I didn't realize that the Union Jack is only called the Union Jack when flown at sea, otherwise it's a Union flag. You learn something new every day. I might just have to keep an eye out for the second in the "Shades of London" series as this is known.
I was also curious about The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines, also from the same Edgar list in the YA category, which I have checked out from the library. The setting is WWII New York, however. Two YA novels in a row. Hmm, should I or shouldn't I? I'd still like to explore some of the novels on main list as well. The winners will be announced April 26, so there is still a little time to squeeze in another book or two.