Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Mysterious Howling

Author: Maryrose Wood
Genre: Children's, Gothic, Mystery
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 267 
Series: #1 in the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place
Publisher: Harper Collins
First Published: 2010
First Line: "It was not Miss Penelope Lumley's first journey on a train, but it was the first one she had taken alone."

Book Description from GoodReadsFound running wild in the forest of Ashton Place, the Incorrigibles are no ordinary children: Alexander, age ten or thereabouts, keeps his siblings in line with gentle nips; Cassiopeia, perhaps four or five, has a bark that is (usually) worse than her bite; and Beowulf, age somewhere-in-the-middle, is alarmingly adept at chasing squirrels.

Luckily, Miss Penelope Lumley is no ordinary governess. Only fifteen years old and a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, Penelope embraces the challenge of her new position. Though she is eager to instruct the children in Latin verbs and the proper use of globes, first she must help them overcome their canine tendencies.

But mysteries abound at Ashton Place: Who are these three wild creatures, and how did they come to live in the vast forests of the estate? Why does Old Timothy, the coachman, lurk around every corner? Will Penelope be able to teach the Incorrigibles table manners and socially useful phrases in time for Lady Constance's holiday ball? And what on earth is a schottische?


My ReviewI will admit that I read this book for three reasons: 1) a library co-worker loved this series and recommended it to me, 2) it had the word 'incorrigible' in the series title (I love that word) and 3) the fact that the young governess was from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. What a delightfully quirky school name.

I'd tout this book 'gothic light for tweens' with a BIG focus on setting up numerous mysteries and letting the reader get to know the characters. The book is narrated by Penelope, the fifteen year old governess who is smart, quirky and felt like a Mary Poppins-type character eager to help these kids.  Unfortunately without the points of view of the three children the reader doesn't get to see much in the way of the personalities of the children themselves which was unfortunate because their take on things would have been quite amusing.  There is also a myriad of secondary characters which include the mysterious older caretaker, the mean stepmother, absentee father figure and the kindly housekeeper to round out the cast of quirky characters in this gothic tale.

Like I mentioned, the focus of this book is on the mysteries.  I admit that I struggled to stay interested in the plot in the middle but what kept me reading the book was the fact that I wanted answers to these mysteries.  Who are these kids and why were they left in the woods to be raised by wolves?  Who tried to sabbotage the Christmas party? Why does Lord Fredrick want to keep them around so badly yet doesn't spend any time with them? What/who is in the attic? Unfortunately hardly any of the mysteries are resolved in this first installment of the series.  I found this more than a little frustrating.  I love a good book series with some overlapping story lines but I also like to have some closure within each book with larger story arcs that bind the books together.  That said, several of the mysteries/loose ends were obvious to me but I was surprised that some of them weren't resolved for younger readers.  The 'to be continued' ending was meant, I think, to make the reader eager to find out more but the result, for me anyway, was a feeling of dissatisfaction.

The writing style had a very unique feel to it and for the most part I enjoyed it.  I think the age range the author was aiming for was between 8 and 10 year olds but there are a couple factors that make me feel that generally children in this age range may not be the best target audience.  First, the story is told from the point of view of the 15 year old governess, not the three children.  I think children would prefer a book with the three children as the focus to make the book more relatable.  Also, the vocabulary and some references felt like they'd go over the heads of 8 to 10 year olds.  The one reference that stands out in my mind is the fairly long and detailed reference to Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus" which i had never even read.

This is a book for children so some leniency is expected with regards to realism.  It is a work of fiction, after all. The target audience must be able to easily suspend reality in order to believe that a fifteen year old with no experience could teach three children who were raised by wolves to learn English, let alone Latin and be writing and reciting poetry, in the span of a few weeks. The adult in me had to remind myself of this fact a couple of times but I think younger audiences would go with the flow more easily.

Figuring out the era in which this story takes place proved to be somewhat difficult. At first I pegged the book to be set during the late 1800's but Wood would make statements within the narration like 'nowadays it would make a fine documentary for broadcast on a nature channel on cable television' which felt odd and out of place especially since it was Penelope who was narrating.  The first time it happened made me question what era this was written in which gave the writing a very disjointed feel.

The adult in me also hoped for a read with more meat on its bones.  This first book in the series instead focuses mostly on the relationship between the three children and their governess with the action happening much later in the story.  Overall, there isn't a whole lot going on in the book besides introducing the reader to the characters, a trip into town to shop and a Christmas party.  Just because its a book targeted at kids doesn't mean it can't have an awesome plot.  

This book sets up the series of books to follow and focuses on introducing its young readers to the characters and mysterious plots with some illustrations sprinkled throughout to help.  I'm sure that once some of the mysteries begin to be revealed things will pick up in this series. Other reviewers have touted this book as very Lemony Snicketty in tone and humour so readers who enjoyed that series may want to pick up this series.

My Rating: 2.5/5 stars

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