Monday, November 14, 2011

Study - The Name of the Star


Question: Who is the best author you've never read?

Until a couple of days ago, my answer was Maureen Johnson. MJ is something of a power broker in YA publishing. She goes everywhere and knows everyone and has her finger on the pulse of everything. Somehow I managed to follow her on Twitter for months without reading any of her books.

I had several books to choose from. Several. So far I've only read two, but it seems to me that she needs to be included on the list of "Must Reads" for anyone who wants to be an author when they grow up.

HOW TO SPOT A REAL PRO

MJ does her homework. She owns her story, she is the expert, no one knows more about her characters, her world, or her plot than she does. That sounds kind of obvious, like that should be the case with all authors, right? But it's not. Haven't you ever watched a movie/TV show where you checked out because you knew something was just "wrong"? It flicks you in the back of your mind, breaking the illusion?

Several months ago, I did a series of studies on how to properly "refresh" a story. You have to accept that your readers will go into your version with a set of expectations and some common knowledge. A lot of these principles apply for MJ's THE NAME OF THE STAR, because at its core, it's a presentation of the Jack the Ripper cannon. In order to own this story, she had to know more about the Ripper than we did. She had to know London better than we did. She had to build the rules of her world, drag us into it, and then run every word past our eyes without us hiccuping and saying, "Wait, that's not right..."

Still not impressed with the amount of legwork she had to do in order to pull this off? If you follow her on Twitter, you'll see how often she travels to London, how much time she spends in libraries, what sorts of things she studies, how many times she's been on the Ripper tours, etc.

She's a New Yorker creating a main character from Louisiana with Southern cultural attributes. She's creating supporting characters from London with various British cultural attributes. She's fluidly including their proper speech patterns - and I purposefully included the word "proper" in that sentence because I love how the English use the word "proper".

I first noticed the use of the word "proper" on TOP GEAR, my new favorite BBC show. (It's about cars. I care nothing about cars. I still love this show.) They say things like, "You look like a proper orangutan when you concentrate," and "That little Fiat is properly quick." Through Grantland, I listen to a weekly English Premier League (soccer) podcast, and those Great Brits say things like, "Our guest today is a proper comedian, a proper broadcaster, a proper many things."

There were a few instances where MJ used the word "proper" like that, and I laughed out loud because it was perfect. And I laughed even more when the main character Rory used it in her inner monologue because it's been proven by science - Americans who stay in England too long become aware of their accents and pick up the Queen's vernacular. (I count myself among the guilty.)

In short, MJ's a proper pro.

DOING ALL THE LITTLE THINGS RIGHT

When I study a book, I keep a notebook handy. About three-fourths of the way through THE NAME OF THE STAR, I reviewed my notes and noticed they were all positives. No questions, no instances of "huh, this didn't seem quite right," no irritating cliches or things that struck me as lazy.

The story hops seamlessly from a first person narrative (high school girl) to very short third person accounts of adults who play various roles in the Ripper mystery. I love this format, perfect in structure and execution.

And although this is a creepy ghost story involving graphic murders, it still has MJ's voice and sense of humor throughout. There's a maturity in her style; she knows when to be serious and when to be fun.

She includes lines like "Something about her suggested that her leisure activities included wrestling large woodland animals and banging bricks together." She adds "Auntie MJ" wisdom and depth by describing fear as a "snake with no venom." Whether it's Tumblr, Twitter, or paper and ink, MJ is MJ in style and substance.

WORLD BUILDING

I already covered the London details, but more than that, THE NAME OF THE STAR takes us inside a private British boarding school that felt a little Hogwartsian. Rory emphasizes how average the school makes her feel, how adult it felt (it seemed more like college than high school to me). As monotonous as it can be to read YA book after YA book in cookie-cutter high schools, this was fresh. She took me somewhere I hadn't been before. I drank in the details, so excited to be in a new and interesting place.

Also, it was nice to see the American/English educational and cultural juxtapositions - something I haven't necessarily seen in other stories where American kids end up in foreign countries. It wasn't central to the plot, it wasn't a "fish out of water" story - it was a series of small details that made it real and three dimensional.

EFFECTIVE USE OF SIDEKICKS

When I studied ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD, I was a little harsh on Cas's sidekicks, stating that I liked the story better when Cas was on his own without all the extra noise. In NAME OF THE STAR, Rory was enriched by her "sidekicks" - and the more were added, the happier I was.

First we met Rory's roommate "Jazza." Her real name is Julianne, but in another example of attention-to-detail, MJ gave her an Englishy nickname. Soccer player Wayne Rooney is called "Wazza." BBC host Jeremy Clarkson (Top Gear) is called "Jezza." I've not heard a girl nicknamed this way, but I wasn't surprised - in fact, I was delighted.

Jazza is just a nice, considerate, "good girl" character. She wasn't exactly a stereotype, but she was exceedingly normal. I felt like I'd met a dozen girls like her. In a good way.

We also have something of a love interest in Jerome, an adventurous prefect and burgeoning journalist. He's sharp and resourceful, and wants to be where there's action. Not necessarily to be a part of it, but to make sure he sees what happened. Very journalist-like.

Later, the book takes a forty-five degree turn - again, in a good way. "Boo" joins the cast, a London girl with the kind of accent that finishes every sentence with "yeah" and a question mark ("I was in Mumbai vising family, yeah?"). I could hear it so clearly, and in my mind popped an image that was part "Bex" from the Gallagher Girls series and part "Tai" from the movie Clueless, only of Indian heritage.

For reasons I can't quite explain, my favorite character was Stephen, a stoic boy of indeterminate age (between 18-22) whose personality you almost pick up subliminally. I'm going to have to re-read to figure out how that happened. Somehow, Stephen slid through my brain without me realizing he was there, but of all the characters (and there are several), he's the one who ended up following me around after the story was done.

BUT HERE'S THE THING...

I've developed a serious writer crush on Auntie MJ over the past week, but nothing is perfect. THE NAME OF THE STAR is a phenomenal example of technique and precision. It's so tidy and put together that there's nothing for an amateur like me to criticize. Even the title is brilliantly clever.

But about two-thirds of the way through, I wrote in my notebook, "Why am I not falling head-over-heels in love with this?" On paper, this book was written for someone like me. I'm obsessive with British culture and always have been. I did a semester in London, living in a three-person room in the same general area as Rory. I've even been on the Ripper tour (by the way, if you haven't seen the movie FROM HELL, you probably should).

I wondered if the issue was just with me? Like ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, where I was looking for resonance and the timing was just off? If I read it in 2005 instead of 2011, would it have taken up residence in my brain HUNGER GAMES style? Or would I have liked it better if it weren't so perfectly executed, maybe if the edges were just a little raw? Or was it that the end got a little monologue-y? I mean, the bad guy kind of did an impression of a Bond villain...

All of these questions bothered me, so I grabbed 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES, MJ's older book about a girl who goes on a scavenger hunt around Europe, piecing together the last years of her beloved aunt's life. Comparing 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES to THE NAME OF THE STAR is interesting because you can see how MJ's craft has evolved over the last six years (give or take).

THE NAME OF THE STAR is probably a better book, but 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES made me "properly" weepy, evoking all of those emotions I'd been expecting but missing. I leapt right into the recently released sequel, THE LAST LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE, but had to shut it down. I wasn't ready.

I'm not sure what else to say. I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel to THE NAME OF THE STAR (I think she said it's the SHADES OF LONDON series, or something to that effect). I think I'll like it more the longer I let it marinate, and I'm saving THE LAST LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE for a Christmastime treat.