Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village
by Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper
I got this as a Christmas present right before dinner and finished it within a couple of hours, while also eating vast quantities of good food, hanging out with family. This is not a long or dense book. It is hilarious!
It’s clearly inspired by Edward Gorey and also by the whole genre of murder mysteries set in quaint English villages. Especially the long series’ where the amateur detective solves a murder mystery in their home village for each book, and the deaths sure do add up. In a very light-hearted and dark-humored way, this lists all the stereotypical places, peoples, and events of small quaint villages and how murderous they manage to be. (For example: if there are any vats described in the text of a book, it’s almost certainly because someone drowned in it. For safety: stay away from vats!)
The illustrations are frequent and the text is sparse, and it’s hilarious and morbidly adorable. There are also quizes! What do you do in each situation to survive the events? Each of them like a tiny choose-your-own-adventure! Hahahaha! I love this book so much!
Remember when I complained about All These Things I’ve Done being so unsatisfying, because it was the first book in a planned series and all it did was set it up for interesting things to happen in later books? The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson does NOT have that problem. This is another YA fantasy book with a kick-ass young female protagonist, and another book that is leading off a planned series (The Shades of London), but this one walks the line between providing a complete story and setting up future action perfectly.
Rory is a New Orleans high school student who decides to attend a boarding school in London while her college professor parents are on sabbatical in England. Her school is in London’s East End, in the neighborhood where the Jack the Ripper killings took place and shortly after Rory arrives in town a copycat starts recreating the murders. As if that weren’t creepy enough, Rory begins to get the feeling that something strange is going on and that she can see things her classmates can’t. I’m sure you can all guess that something supernatural is going on and that Rory quickly finds herself at the heart of the mystery.
My favorite thing about this book is Rory’s voice–she’s funny and sarcastic and she sounds modern, like a teenager talking today (or at least, what I think teenagers today sound like). She also has a pretty distinctly Southern voice but doesn’t come off like a hick, which I (as a Southerner) always appreciate. The London stuff was nicely atmospheric and (without giving too much away) the fantasy side of things was sufficiently creepy. I also liked, as you probably guessed, that the book manages to wrap up a major mystery with a thrilling final action scene that provides a great deal of closure. But at the same time, the very last page of the book introduces a new twist that made me so excited about the possibilities of the next book I immediately went to Amazon to see if there was a publication date for book two (there’s not). The Name of the Star feels like the start of something new, while also being a satisfying story all by itself. My only small complaint is that it took a long time for things to get going, and a significant portion of the book is just Rory settling into school and having vaguely odd experiences that she doesn’t pay attention to but that the readers know are significant. As a reader, I like feeling smart enough to pick up on subtle hints but this almost tipped over into Rory seeming dumb, since I had figured things out and was just waiting for her to catch up. Since I read this on my Kindle I can be very precise about how much of the book was just working up to the real action and Rory’s discovery of the true nature of things: 47%, which seems like a lot. However, once things get going they are really going, and I suspect that in the future when folks read a few of the books in close succession the time spent introducing things will be less distracting. Again, minor quibble.
A while back BBCAmerica showed a mystery series called Whitechapel that was essentially this same plot, minus the supernatural element and told from the perspective of the detectives. If you find the Jack the Ripper aspect of the story interesting, you might also enjoy tracking down the TV series.