Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Review 2015 #7 - Maryrose Wood's The Mysterious Howling

The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book 1) by Leigh Bardugo
Published by: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: March 1st, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 272 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Miss Penelope Lumley is eager to embrace her first job as a governess. She has just graduated from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females and is ready to put the sayings of the school's founder, the redoubtable Agatha Swanburne, into action. Though her plans to teach her pupils Latin declensions might have to be put on hold for awhile at least. The thing is, when she arrives at Ashton Place she learns the truth, her three charges were found in the woods where it is presumed they were raised by wolves. Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia Incorrigible were discovered by Lord Fredrick Ashton when he was out hunting, and as everyone knows, finders keepers! Miss Lumley first encounters her charges out in the barn quite literally howling. Now she sees why the advertisement for the job requested "experience with animals." But growing up at the Swanburne Academy Penelope's favorite books were the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! books about the adventures of a pony named Rainbow and her young mistress, Edith-Anne Pevington. The volume Silky Mischief, wherein Rainbow saved an ill-tempered pony, left an indelible mark on Penelope and she knows that if Rainbow could save Silky she can save these three young children. It isn't long before she has them indoors and properly attired, though squirrels continue to be a problem. Miss Lumley is confident and bold with her unique lessons, but she worries about an ultimatum laid down that the children be ready to be presented at Lord Fredrick's new wife's holiday soiree. Could it undo all the progress she has made? And what if a squirrel were to appear?

While a series of books written about a group of children raised by wolves sounds almost too gimmicky to be enjoyable, there is something so endearing about the Incorrigibles that you can't help but fall in love with them. In fact there's many things about this book that in any other book I would have been annoyed and aggravated with, but somehow I just found it all so charming. For example, anachronisms usually drive me batty, yet for a book set around 1850, these interruptions from a modern narrator which introduce the anachronisms somehow work. Like Lemony Snicket explaining words within his narrative, this gimmick becomes stylistically part of the story and just works. And yes, I know saying something "just works" is a very imprecise way of describing something and seems as if I'm trying to get out of more explanation, but knowing when something works and when something doesn't work is an ineffable quality. It's easier to describe something when it doesn't work. You can point to a specific passage or event and go, there it is, that's where it failed. To point at something and go, now that's where it works, well, that's harder. The book is a cohesive whole, it flows and doesn't jar or annoy. Everything follows in a logical and well written pattern and at the end there's nothing that displeased you except coming to the end. I had an ineffably good time with a smile on my face the entire time I read this book, and if you need more convincing, I'm not sure how I could convince you. But let me give it a good old Swanburne try!

One aspect of the book that would normally be a stumbling block for me was Miss Lumely's love of the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! books. See, the thing is, I'm not a horse girl. I wasn't the girl at school longing for the weekend when they could go visit their pony or go ride somewhere for lessons, and yes, I did know a few. I think the fact that I was never the girl screaming for a pony for her birthday pleased my mother, who grew up on a farm surrounded by horse girls. Yet, unlike other authors who would play to this horse loving crowd, Wood doesn't write just for them, thus alienating her non-horse readers. Yes, the horse lovers might get something more out of The Mysterious Howling, but the book lovers who can't pass up a good series, and the animal lovers are also part of this book's audience. In fact, the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! books reminded me of the Serendipity book series by Stephen Cosgrove and Robin James. When I was growing up these kitschy illustrated books about all kids of animals from cats to unicorns were all the rage. Sure there was a moral to the tale, but it was the love of animals and the illustrations that drew me to these books. So while I can't relate to the horse aspect here, I can relate to the animal aspect and in extension the animal book series aspect. I can relate to the love and care that animals show humans and vice-versa and how this love for all living creatures helped Miss Lumley forge a bond with her charges that other governesses wouldn't have been able to do.

Going further into the "animal" nature of the children, I think what makes this series stand out is the children's use of language. Everyone who has ever loved or cared for animals knows that they speak in their own language. Cats have a certain way of speaking, as do dogs, and as do the aforementioned horses. Therefore it makes sense that these three Incorrigibles being raised as they were would have their own language as well. Now this is a very fine line that Wood is walking. Like books that use vernacular there's the danger of being incomprehensible on one end of the spectrum, and on the other is the danger of being too cutesy. But the truth is, their language usage isn't precocious or twee, it's simply enchanting and addictive. From Lumawoo, their affectionate name for Miss Lumley, to various ahwoos punctuated with barks and growls, their language is adorable and you instantly want to adopt it as your own. Much like how little children sometimes can't quite say certain words or letters growing up and nicknames for people and things develop, so does the Incorrigible language form. Yet you aren't on the outside looking in like someone mildly revolted by a couples overly cutesy nicknames for each other, you're on the inside, instantly seeing how cute it all is. You're in on the joke, so that makes all the difference. Your perspective is key.

Where I took the greatest joy though was in all the literary allusions and references that add a level for the adult readers. There is no doubt that Miss Lumley is of the Jane Eyre type, a sensible governess in early Victorian times. Therefore there is all that Gothic goodness to sink your teeth into. But what I took most fun with was trying to pinpoint the year the book takes place. With all the modern references peaking in, you'd think the book might be slightly timeless, but you'd be wrong. I mentioned earlier 1850, and that wasn't arbitrary, in fact, to be more specific, let's say 1851. Leaving aside the fact that at the author talk I went to Maryrose Wood also said 1851. Because while in the audience I did a little hope of joy because I had already reached that conclusion by the allusions in the text. The two key pieces of evidence for the literary sleuths are the publication of Moby Dick, and the reference to the new fashion of "the cage" which Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a short story about. These two mentions place the book firmly in 1851. I love to think of kids years from now going back to these books, which have hopefully become favorites, and seeing all that they missed before. Not the cutesy Rainbow books, that are the type of books we love as children, but other, more adult things, like the tableaux of Longfellow's work. These are books that you can read on many levels and grow into, and that makes them so good.

But the literary allusions, while all well and good, bring me to the fact that, for me, it's the time period that makes The Mysterious Howling. Yes, because of the time period, the literary allusions add to it, but it's the time period itself that I love. I love the mid 19th century. Dickens, the Brontes, Gaskell, Eliot, all these amazing writers creating a sense of place. If I had to describe this book in one sentence it would be Victorian Addams Family with a Lemony Snicket vibe. And really, there couldn't be higher praise from me than this. I devoured the A Series of Unfortunate Event books, and as for the Addams Family, they are a way of life for me. Combining the two around a Gothic center, well, I felt like these books were written just for me. In fact the second I finished The Mysterious Howling I wanted to dive right into The Hidden Gallery. But I didn't. I didn't because I knew that I'd then have to read them all right away and there's nothing that hurts a review more than getting muddled in a series and not being able to do each individual book justice. Plus I had some Sherlock Holmes to read... But you can be confident that now that I have finally written this review that the next volume by Maryrose Wood will quickly be making it's way to the top of my to be read pile, because I literally can't wait.


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