Ahwoooooooooooooooo!


Every once in a while there occurs in the bookstore that moment when you know you've stumbled across something magical, something you must have, pages you must run your fingers over, words you must devour. I had this experience a little over a year ago when I stumbled across The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood. I was drawn to the book, inevitably, by it's cover with it's mix of vintage and modern art, with the humor and fun in it mixed with this sense of order- what it was, I suppose, was some sort of recognition that this was a book made by people who knew what the rules were, and so knew how to break them- a very big difference than just breaking them. At any rate, I knew I had to read this book with it's strange mix of characters and it's play on so many of my beloved novels. That is how I met the Incorrigibles- in a quiet corner of a bookstore.

I came to love the Incorrigibles on a spring night whilst tucked under my quilt, laughing myself silly, smiling, and having a thoroughly jolly good time. What I love about The Mysterious Howling is the way that it is such a mix of things- it's Jane Eyre meets Jungle Book, meets classic children's fiction. The book follows how the mysterious and penniless young governess, Penelope Lumley comes to the stately Ashton Place to teach some even more mysterious children who by all appearance are human, but in manner have been raised by wolves (and quite literally have been, as well). Teaching the Incorrigibles such necessities as Latin, the importance of squirrel resistance (which, having my own incorrigible who ran me into a tree once in pursuit of a squirrel, I thoroughly appreciated), poetry, mathematics, and the general acceptability of clothing and dinner utensils, is no easy feat but armed with her wits and the teachings of Agatha Swanburne, this young governess rises to the challenge and makes one laugh the whole time. The book appeals to kids for it's humor and it's story; it appeals to adults through all of it's literary allusions and delightful plays on refined societies and culture. I LOVE this book, it's as simple as that.

The second in the series, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Hidden Gallery finds our young governess and her wards heading off to London for a rollicking time in the city's "educashawoo" institutions and unraveling some of the mysteries of their own pasts. I admit, this book is weaker than the first and has that annoying tendency that put me off of the Lemony Snickett books to define words in text- admittedly, good for children but annoying for literate adults (besides that I am old fashion having commonly encountered in response to the question of  "What does .... mean?" the stern "look it up" with the rolling eye towards the dictionary on the bookshelf). This second book also suffers from what I call the crisis of being the second book, the attempt to match up to the first and yet define a new direction or progression as well. The writing is both more certain and less, the text sometimes fall flat, and the plot is much looser than the first- indeed, I felt as if I spent a great deal of my time reading entertaining scenes that in no way advanced the mystery of the overarching plot beyond what I had surmised after reading the first volume; I admit, I felt cheated at the end that more had not been revealed. Having said all of that, I suppose the natural reaction would be, "why do you recommend these books?" and it's because of this dichotomy between the first and second book; it's because first books often shine and second books often reflect; because I have often found that after the crisis of the second book comes a better third book that is usually at least as good, if not better, than the first. So, I'm forgiving of second books and even though this one didn't meet my admittedly high expectations by a long stretch, I thoroughly enjoyed it and could see where kids would love it more than the first volume in the series. I love the Incorrigibles and I love Penelope Lumley and I will follow them wherever their adventures take them. This series is well worth the time and effort and I have no doubt of it's becoming a classic.

N.B. Young Adults might be interested Wood's series The Poison Diaries. This book, admittedly, starts off slow but if you stick with it, I think you'll find yourself pleasantly surprised. Most reviews of this book that I've read leave it painfully obvious that they haven't finished it, and if you haven't read the last ninety pages of the book where Weed strives to save Jessamine and encounters Oleander, then you haven't read a thing. Wood calls up stunning descriptions of evil, of the weakness of human nature, of the sometimes perverse desire for knowledge, the overarching whole, and being careful what you wish for. I, personally, would read three hundred pages of slow but entertaining plot for ninety pages of exquisite brightness. I keep longing to find out what happens next!

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