Tag Archives: joint review

I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts

In The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson (Penguin 2011), Louisiana native Rory Deveaux arrives at her new London boarding school on the day that a woman is found brutally murdered in the same way as the infamous Jack the Ripper’s first known victim.  As more Ripper copycat bodies pile up, the citizens of London are whipped up into a state of hysterical frenzy and the police are left with few clues and no witnesses.  Except for Rory.  She spies the prime (and only) suspect near the crime scene of the latest victim.  But no one else sees him, including a plethora of security cameras and her friend who was with her at the time.  Dun, Dun, DUN!  There’s a little humor, a splash of romance, and a whole heaping plateful of suspense.  Oh, and there’s also London’s secret ghost police.  Who’s in?

Ever since Anastasia Beaverhausen and I received our pre-ordered copies from Books of Wonder (signed book AND free gifts?  Sold!), we have been nagging each other to finish so that we could discuss it already.  Ok, that may have been just me.  So Anastasia, what were your first impressions?

Anastasia Beaverhausen: Here’s what I took away, in a simple form: creepy, hilarious, great characters, fully-created world. But the biggest impression? This is just so Maureen Johnson. If you read her twitter (@maureenjohnson), you get a very clear picture of who Maureen is and how her delightfully twisted mind works. And this book couldn’t have been written by anyone else.

Captain Awesome: 13 Little Blue Envelopes is actually the only Maureen Johnson I’ve ever read, and while I enjoyed it, it didn’t really stick with me.  But I love her twitter feed and could definitely feel her voice shining through, particularly with the character of Rory.  Who I LOVED.  She felt very real, which I think is essential in a supernatural story like this one.  She was smart and funny, but also a bit awkward and out of place.  And as someone whose family comes from a small Southern town, I loved her stories about the weirdos from her tiny little town in the Louisiana swamp.

AB: Oh man, me too. Rory worked for me as a character because she felt so real. She’s quirky, but not in fake, annoying way (she isn’t constantly falling down and hurting herself, for example). She’s just a bit weird in a way that a lot of teenage girls are – the best example of this is how she and her roommate Jazza interact. They eat Cheez Whiz and dance around their dorm room together, which is exactly what I did with my friends at that age. I still do, in fact – don’t judge.

CA: Hey, I would never judge!  What did you think of the other characters?  Because this is Rory’s story and the focus is on her, I felt that a couple of the characterizations were a bit light (hello cute, but unremarkable love interest Jerome) but there’s a lot of potential there with some of the supporting characters as the series progresses.  I’m particularly excited to learn more about the members of the secret ghost police.  And hockey-loving housemistress Claudia is hilarious; I hope we get to see more of her.

AB: Yeah, Jerome was kind of weak sauce, sadly. But I also loved all the ghost police folks – Maureen really developed them and I’m excited to learn more about their backgrounds. I (unsuprisingly) adored Alistair, the punk ghost who lives in the school library. I felt like there was some nice chemistry between the leader of the secret police and Rory. Possible love interest developing? Since the end of the book (VERY MINOR SPOILER) has Rory leaving Wexford, I wonder where the next book is going to go and if we are ever gonna see the school folks again. Which makes me sad because again, I love Jazza!

CA: Yeah, I too love punk book nerd Alistair.  I know that if I was stuck in a library for an eternity (which really, does that sound so bad?), I too would read every book in the joint multiple times.  And if I was like Rory, I would totally exploit ghosts for homework help.  Speaking of ghosts, I loved all of the supernatural elements of the book.  First of all, it’s just nice to read about something other than vampires or werewolves in YA.  And I think that ghosts are the most plausible and therefore relatable of the paranormal creatures.  I mean, we’re all going to die one day and nobody really knows what’s going to happen when we do.  I can’t really relate to why a vampire would rip someone’s throat out (or fall in love with a boring whiner with no personality and balance problems), but I can see why a spirit would stick around because they’re scared, confused, or angry.  I could even understand the killer’s motivations despite the fact that the Jack the Ripper recreations were horrifyingly gory.  And THANK GOD Maureen Johnson did not have Rory fall in love with a ghost.  It might still be coming, but I loved that the first book was really about Rory adjusting to her new life and abilities.  I’m not sure other YA authors would have been able to resist the obvious storyline.

AB: Oh yeah, definitely. Supernatural romance is hard to resist! I did like that she had a genuine friendship between a ghost and a human, though. Jo, a woman who died during WWII, was such a great addition to the story. I like she showed that ghosts can still affect the world around them – it gave nice context to their existence. I also thought Maureen did a great job creating a novel with so many different genres – coming of age, school story, murder mystery, and supernatural – without it feeling overwhelming or too busy. All the elements combined to make a great read.

CA: Oh, World War II Jo.  She’s fantastic.  And yes, playing with genres can be tricky.  Sometimes it feels like an author is just throwing a bunch of disparate elements onto the page to see what sticks.  Hmm, that metaphor didn’t really work, but you know what I mean.  I think what makes the different genres meld together successfully in this book is that it’s all so character driven.  Every different plot point that happens, whether it’s wacky boarding school hijinx or weird ghost shenanigans, is used to inform or develop Rory’s character.  And I think that makes it a richer story.

So we should probably wrap this up.  Final thoughts?

AB: Maureen’s writing keeps getting better and better. I fell in love with her “Suite Scarlett” series and I am literally dancing in my seat in expectation for the next book in this series. In the meantime, I have her twitter to keep me entertained til the next book (@maureenjohnson for those who don’t follow her).

CA: The writing is fantastic and the story has a little something for everyone, but I also wanted to mention the design of the book.  Jacket covers usually get the most attention and this one is fantastic.  It has this pearl/iridescent sheen that I now want to use on all of our books even though I’m sure it’s hideously expensive.  But the design elements inside the book are just as important and are often overlooked.  The swirly frame design and the old-fashioned, hand-painted looking font that are on the cover and chapter openers help reinforce the Gothic, spooky tone of the story. Most people have no idea how much time and effort goes into those little details, but when they’re done well, they really enhance the overall reading experience.  They’re also part of the reason why, despite the fact that I love my e-reader, I’ll never abandon printed books.  So thanks Maureen Johnson and the Penguin team for such a complete reading experience.  I can’t wait for the next one.  Wait, we have to wait nearly a year?  Crap.

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Do you think my new feminism makes me look fat?

Anastasia recently went on a beach vacation and took Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (Scholastic, 2011) as one of her beach reads. She loved it and promptly tweeted that everyone she knew should read it and pestered the rest of the Rampant team to get on it as well. And Captain Awesome obliged. So now, they conversate!

AB: FINALLY. YOU FINALLY READ IT! I’ve been dying for someone to finish this book so I could talk about it because I LOVED IT. What were your first impressions?

CA: Well, I am the daughter of a former Miss Derrick AND I spent my formative elementary school years in Dallas, Texas (the unofficial Beauty Queen capitol of America), so it was inevitable that I would read and love this book. I think what struck me the most about the story is that at first it seems exactly like what you would a expect a story about beauty queens crashing on a deserted island to be like — hilarious and ridiculous — but underneath there is a really smart critique of gender identity and expectations, among other things. And this book satirizes EVERYTHING. Beauty pageants, our reality TV obsession, corporate culture, the influence of huge corporations in our government and everyday lives, boy bands, health care, and Sarah Palin all get taken down, but never in a way that feels to preachy or didactic. And did I mention that it’s hilarious? Because it is.

AB: So so hilarious. I knew Libba had a gift for dark humor when I read Going Bovine last year and it broke my heart as I was cracking up, but she took it to a whole new level with this one. I mean, when one of the first characters you encounter has a seat-back tray stuck in her forehead and one of the other girls suggests she grow her bangs out to cover it up, you know you are reading something special.

CA: I knew it was love when one of the characters starting singing a boy band song called “Safe Tween Crush”, where the lyrics call the original singer an emo eunuch. I nearly fell off the bed, I was laughing so hard.

AB: There is so much great humor in the book, it helps the violent sections go down easier. The plane crash alone could have been truly awful – finding the stewardess’s body, the tray in the forehead… This book operates on so many levels, the shifting in tone could really be jarring and overwhelming if it wasn’t done with the skill that Libba brings to the table.

CA: Libba also plays around with the form of storytelling quite a bit. The story is told through multiple POVs, but it’s interspersed with pageant contestant questionnaires, fake product ads, and talk show transcripts. Oh, and humorous footnotes. I LOVE humorous footnotes. Because I’m a nerd. I’ll admit there were a few times that I was annoyed with the intrusion and just wanted her to get back to the story, but for the most part, I felt that these little stylistic detours really helped flesh out the world and the characters.

So what did you think about the characters? (That really wasn’t much of a segue, I know.)

AB: Footnotes are AWESOME (I love you, Terry Pratchett!) I loved the characters. I think Libba worked very hard to give each of the girls depth and backstory, reasons for who she is and why she was in the pageant, then showed her growing through her time on the island. I also loved how she played with stereotypes and prejudice and acknowledged them throughout the story, especially with Shanti and Nicole. That frankness is one of Libba’s trademarks and it’s so refreshing.

CA: I love that the characters all start out as stereotypes — the angry feminist, the non-threatening minority, the dumb blonde, the tough lesbian, the brave deaf girl — but then were revealed to be something more. And a beauty pageant is such an interesting lens to view these identities though, because to me at least, pageants are all about conformity. You have to have the right clothes, the right heartwarming answers, the right demure behavior in order to succeed in that world, Not to get all English majory on you, but I think Libba uses the pageant as a metaphor for how society pressures girls to fit certain gender roles and can really punish those who break out of those roles. I mean, the characters have to crash and nearly die on a deserted island, before they gain the confidence to discover who they really are. It’s kind of a subversive message, actually. I hope the book inspires teen girls to explore themselves and the world a little bit more. Hell, I could use some of that inspiration now and then.

We could talk about this book forever, but we should probably wrap things up. Any final thoughts?

AB: I totally agree with you on the subversion and I think she reinforces it with tv pundit reactions at the end of the book, that the only thing they are concerned with is “are modern girls too wild?” Precisely the point Libba is trying to make.

Final thoughts: A friend of mine who also read the book said that her book group felt that all the different shifts in tone made it feel like Libba was writing several different books at once. I can totally see that perspective, but I think that shifting tone keeps you on your toes as a reader, and reinforces that this is a satire. It can go from joking about leg hair to deadly serious (literally) in a moment, and I love that. I think Libba gave her teen readers a real challenge with this book and I hope they get as much out of it and enjoy the crap out of it as much as I did.

CA: So I tried explaining the plot of this book to my family and when I got to the stuffed lemur named General Good Times, they just looked at me for a few seconds before saying, “and this was good?” YES! Beauty Queens is hilarious, insightful, irreverent, a little weird, and just plain fun. And by the end, I really did want world peace.